Creativity and Disability:

Dolores O’Riordan’s Cautionary Tale

Celebrity and Illness


The Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s recent death marked one of the first major celebrity losses of 2018, but she’s not the first to come out about her struggles with mental health issues in the years before her passing. O’Riordan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013 following publicized manic episodes. So far, her death hasn’t been associated with the disorder. Looking at how celebrities deal with mental illness, however, can teach us a lot about our society’s current understanding and changes that still need to be made.

Celebrities are no stranger to mental illnesses, which can exacerbated by their rise to fame, the pressures of their obligations, and the lack of privacy. Support networks can often fail or become superficial, and sudden increases in money can be more detrimental than helpful.

Moreover, our modern world is enabling more celebrities to come forward about their mental illness diagnoses. The most overwhelmingly common seem to be depression and anxiety, but you’ll hear of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and more serious diagnoses as well. Substance abuse, of course, has long been associated with famous musicians and is even considered part of the glamorous nature of the role. Icons like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse felt the combined effects of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and the inability to handle the pressures of the spotlight. Through self-medication and faulty support systems, their lives ended prematurely.

However, the public focuses only on these mental illnesses as major obstacles and tabloids paint pictures of tragedy and dramatic breakdowns. Sure, premature deaths, drugs, and uncommon disorders make for jazzy news stories, but how can we put what celebrities face in context of the country’s mental health issues? Why do we only focus on the negative stories?


Creativity and Disability


While no studies exist (that I could find) comparing the level of mental illness in celebrities to the general public, there are many studies tying creativity and ingenuity to major personal obstacles and especially mental illness. In a 2012 Swedish study, researchers found that,

“being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. In addition, [researchers] found an association between creative professions and first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and for siblings of patients with autism.”

With the disorders mentioned above, the individuals with the mental illnesses as well as their family members gained new, unique insight through disabilities, influencing their creativity and ability to think beyond the status quo. Being ostracized in society, whatever the reason, forces an individual to develop a questioning and innovative mindset. Sometimes the best, original ideas come from the darkest or most complicated places.

It make sense that these individuals are musicians, artists, authors, and actors. Could you imagine Kurt Cobain working in finance? Or The Cranberries not forming and Dolores O’Riordan being a tax attorney?


Healing Art


The art itself is an outlet, a therapeutic method for dealing with each day. Dr. Rachel Kitson of Shrink Tank writes, “people who embark on creative measures in their day to day lives tend to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity; they report a ‘greater sense of well-being.’” For those celebrities coming forward, Dr. Kitson says, “I applaud these people sharing their stories and shedding light on how talking about their struggles can be curative in itself. For those struggling with their mental health, finding ways to explore your experience in creative ways may help you cope and overcome.”


While creative art is “curative”, it can backfire for celebrities as they rise to fame and experience all the accompanying pressure. News outlets obsess over early deaths, substance abuse, and scandal, but it’s often these news outlets (fueled by the public’s interest) that drove the celebrity there in the first place.  

Of course, we aren’t going to all stop watching the news and learning about our favorite celebrities. But maybe it’s time for the public and media to also focus on how mental illness can be a positive influence on art and the surrounding environment. This concept is called the neurodiversity paradigm and argues that differences in mental functioning positively enhance our society and species.

It’s not too late for us to get on board and start applauding unique attributes, rather than lamenting them. A balance between mental health and creative innovation can be struck – strong enough even to withstand celebrity – and it’s up to each individual with an illness to find their own path to it. And it’s up to us as a society not to get in the way.