Originally published
April 23, 2007

I often wonder about the relationship between sanity and deep creative expression. I wonder about this because, as a college Art educator, it seems like we see more than our fair share of students who suffer a precarious balance in their state of mind. I’ve even heard it suggested to a student that he/she enroll in art classes especially if they suffer from ADHD, anxiety, depression, or other mental illness flavor of the day. I’m not insensitive to the relationship and therapeutic benefits of creative expression. But I think that this “channeling” of students towards the arts who are deemed emotionally “unfit” for other areas of study may be part of the reason we tend to relate arts with some levels of mental instability.

But how does this relate to the artist/educator, a practicing exhibiting artist who has been trained to see, absorb, interpret, and express the inner visions of the soul of others or their own? Trained in psychology? Not usually. But our training and experience has provided us with other ways that provide insight into the human mind. Yes, we study the humanities, the social sciences, and our craft. But we also study humans, from the inside out, observing the body’s language on the outside, the spirit’s language from within. It is the depth of this experience and insight that can make the difference between the artist who paints pictures of mountains and the artist whose work can move emotional mountains.

The creative arts, whether it be music, visual or written, require the preparation of individuals for a lifetime of balancing a hypersensitivity to the range of human emotions and mental visions, and the ability to express them within their chosen medium. All the while they stand at the edge of their own mental balance while attempting to put into form, sound, or words, the internal struggle of the human psyche.

This precarious balance was a subject of a study by Dr. John Morgan of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK, who said: “The trait [of melancholy or mental illness] may energise and inform a creative mind, but the state of mental disintegration removes the ability to communicate.”(1)

But this mental disintegration was precisely what prevented the likes of Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech from being able to communicate in a socially acceptable fashion, leaving him alone with his psychosis, churning and brewing within, until it was ready to explode. And, far from trying to heal Cho themselves, his creative writing professors recognized a more serious problem and fought to get him help. They recognized that Cho’s illness was beyond their scope. They recognized that something more sinister existed because that is what their creative training and experience has taught them to recognize.

But the laws, the rules of the system, and, frankly the arrogance of some of the people who work within the Mental Health system, were counterproductive to achieving this goal. The faculty’s concerns were unheeded. After all, where does one draw the line between creativity and an overt threat? Between horror fiction and psychotic delusions? The faculty felt they knew but were met with disdain, inaction, or patronizing arrogance. This arrogance(2) or downright disdain, coupled with the Federal Education Rights to Privacy Act (FERPA) which prevents a college from sharing information with parents, along with other rules from within many higher ed institutions, kept Cho from getting the help he needed, and it ultimately cost the lives of 32 innocent people. This doesn’t even begin to address those who will suffer the physical and/or emotional scars of this trauma for a lifetime to come.

And now comes the blame game, as if the faculty at Virginia Tech won’t feel badly enough for their impotence. Next time, the reactions will be swift. The pendulum swings hard and fast in the opposite direction. Will we reach the point where we come to fear artists? Fear the creative soul? Creative expression? 

Paint pictures of pretty flowers, my friends, and write poetry of kindness and silly games. For to do otherwise now, will risk seeing your creative outlet a clear sign of a dangerous and threatening psychosis. 

It will be the inevitable knee-jerk response of a mental and legal system giant, suddenly awoke from an apathetic slumber, growling and determined to “prove” they weren’t sleeping at all, and thus overreacting to the next poor soul who steps into their line of sight.

About five and a half years ago, I had a student suffer a mental breakdown.(3) Three months later, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head. It was a rough three months. He had tried so hard to be a “normal” kid throughout his life, trying to please others. But in the end, he didn’t have what it took to survive. He was losing his safety net, his mother moved away. He had been involved in and out of drugs but had sworn them off, wanting so hard to do well, stay in school. “You’ll help me keep my life straight,” he told me. I tried. But he grew afraid of disappointing me. His paranoia sometimes made him even fearful of me, making it more frustrating when I couldn’t reach through the psychosis. 

From the very beginning, I turned to the professionals for help. They prescribed medications and wanted to send him home, where there would be no one to remind him to take his meds, no one to ask about him. But then he agreed to hospitalization. It lasted less than two weeks before they let him out, saying that he was no longer a threat to himself or others. No longer a threat? He didn’t have a support system at home. He lived in a slum surrounded by people who could barely take care of themselves. He would never take his medications.

He came to class, a drawing class on Tuesday and Thursday. Another student who had befriended him on an overseas trip, where his mental disintegration had really come to a head, would check on him during each class to make sure he was there. But one day he wasn’t. I remember it because the friend came in to my office and asked me if I’d seen the student, that he wasn’t in class. The next day, a Friday, I was in my office again and the phone rang. It was the ex-girlfriend. My student had shot himself, left some of his brains on the sofa. He couldn’t take the voices, the psychosis any more. 

I wonder if I could have done more. I played back the countless times I had tried different resources to get him help. However, I’m also thankful that no one else was physically hurt. But the emotional scars reached across the entire range of people who had been close to him, those who had begun to feel an emotional stake in this student’s survival. My student didn’t realize that he wasn’t alone, that others were there. His illness was too great, and the system wouldn’t allow us to help.

The system has to change.

~ mara jevera fulmer

April 19-22, 2007


1. Dr. John Morgan, “Creativity & Mental Disorders,” Changing Minds campaign, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 16 September 2006,

2. See a recent discussion forum on the Chronicle for Higher Education where a Mental Health dean’s arrogance and disdain towards a faculty who try and help is readily apparent.

3. Eventually, in 2004 I wrote an ethnology, designed as a limited edition artist’s book, about this young man and his work as a graffiti artist, along with his growing madness. I’m considering publishing it for wider distribution. 

See Wizdom vs Slick: A journey into madness, a journal into sadness.

Note: The image above is from the graffiti art of my student mentioned in the article. The graffiti says “Dead” in the main type, then in a small subtext “Why Ask Why?” Nearly six years later, it seems particularly apt today. ~ mjf

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