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As our awareness about the importance of mental health grows, so too does our search for ways to maintain a healthy mind. The good news is that enjoyable, engaging and creative endeavours can help put us on the right path.
Professor Michael Berk is the Director of Deakin’s Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment. He’s happy to report that, as far as public awareness about mental health goes, we’re heading in the right direction.
‘It’s becoming less stigmatised and people are talking about it more. There’s more of a sense of looking for answers and solutions, and for this discussion to be out in the public space – which is desirable.’
When asked about support and information for students in universities, he says, ‘There’s no question that there’s much more support now than in years gone by.’
Prof. Berk’s research delves deep into the relationship between creativity and mental health. ‘Creativity,’ he says, ‘is a very broad construct.’ It can be anything from planting vegetables to playing hockey to writing Stranger Things fan fiction to dedicating an Insta account to onion rings (we’re looking at you, Lorde).
Creativity doesn’t have to be limited to the classic arts, music and literature – just as long as you’re active and engaged. And bonus points for being playful and having fun.
‘Mental health is greatly assisted by productive activity of any kind,’ says Prof. Berk. ‘So having a goal or an aim that gives you meaning and purpose is very important.’
What can we take from this? While there’s no one simple answer, there are a number of things that can help you maintain good mental health, including:
That last one can sometimes feel as elusive, and as non-existent, as a unicorn. But Prof. Berk stresses the importance of having ‘sufficient work that is meaningful to you and keeps you productive but not overwhelmed.’
It may sound like a cliché but leisure time, particularly the social part of it, is essential to a person’s health and wellbeing. So don’t feel guilty the next time you shut your laptop for an hour to go play Frisbee in the park with friends.
'Mental health is greatly assisted by productive activity of any kind ... So having a goal or an aim that gives you meaning and purpose is very important.'
Professor Michael Berk,
Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment, Deakin University
While an active life lived with purpose can be good for our mental health, Prof. Berk warns against being excessively goal-orientated, whether with study or extracurricular activities.
‘One needs to be sufficiently active that you have something meaningful and purposeful to get out of bed for,’ he says. But on the other hand: ‘Too much activity, too many goals, too much pressure is not good.’ It’s all about finding the right balance.
We’ve all heard about the highly creative person with significant mental illness –Vincent Van Gogh being one of the most studied examples. But beware this myth, says Prof. Berk. The reality is that ‘people who have mental illness tend not to be particularly productive when they are very unwell, and they tend to be more productive when they are stable.’
Indeed Van Gogh was unable to paint during most of his unwell periods. It was when he had recovered from these episodes that he was at his most productive.
‘Creativity is generally greatly aided by good mental health,’ says Prof. Berk. It’s when we’re in a state of health that we’re best able to draw on our creative juices.
That said, some research suggests that people who have bipolar disorder tend to be more creative. ‘Whether this is chicken or egg is not completely clear,’ says Prof. Berk. ‘We know that some people who are particularly smart, those who score way above average, are more likely to end up developing a disorder like bipolar.’
Some have argued that there is a link between bipolar and creativity, inasmuch as the genetic vulnerability of the illness carries a benefit of creativity. However, says Prof. Berk, ‘it’s also true that some people who do badly at school are more likely to develop bipolar.’ So the jury is still out.
But not when it comes to the positive impact of creativity on mental health. So stay active and engaged, set some goals (but not too many) and be on your way to a productive and meaningful life.
Our mental health can be impacted in times of stress. If you’re feeling the strain, check out our tips on staying calm under pressure.
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