The creative brain, unravelled: how the highly pressured fashion industry is tackling mental ill-health

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Alexandra Jones
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The worlds of fashion, art and music have always attracted the most brilliant minds. But as new research uncovers a link between creativity and mental illness, it’s time we all stopped romanticising the idea of the tortured genius...

Long after the last flashbulb has popped at London Fashion Week, the next generation of talented designers will dream of making their mark. They’re entering a bubble of glamour and prestige and serious money – womenswear alone is worth £27bn to the UK economy. But they’re also entering one of the toughest fields there is – the world of creative industry. We’ve heard plenty about the pressures of working in finance, and the high rates of burnout in teaching, social work and medicine. But underneath the glamour of working as a designer, a writer, a dancer or director lies a less glossy reality. The people working in these types of roles are far more likely than the average population to suffer from mental-health issues.

In fact, we’ve long known about the link between creative genius and mental illness. The idea of the brilliant, tortured soul can be traced back through history, from the writing of Aristotle and Shakespeare through to Byron, Plath, Hemingway, right up to Amy Winehouse. But we’ve always treated these people as extreme, even eccentric one-of-a-kinds. Now, new research suggests that link between creativity and mental health may affect far more of us than just a troubled few.

A savage kind of beauty

In the past decade, this has been nowhere more apparent than in the world of fashion. In October 2016, the London College of Fashion hosted a panel event titled Mental Health Issues in the Creative Industries. Industry experts, psychologists and mental health campaigners debated issues such as the pressure on vulnerable women, the psychology of perfectionism and initiatives for improving the wellbeing of those in the business, such as Erin O’Connor’s Model Sanctuary, which offers counselling support.

Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable. But it’s something the industry has had to lean in to. In February 2010, the world was rocked by Alexander McQueen’s suicide. The inquest into his death heard he had a history of depression, anxiety and insomnia. Shortly before, McQueen’s friend and mentor, Isabella Blow, drank a lethal dose of weed killer. And three years ago designer L’Wren Scott, after throwing a dinner party for friends, hanged herself. Although notoriously guarded about her private life, friends believed she suffered from depression and many speculated whether stress over the huge debts of her company added to her troubles.

As shocking and tragic as these deaths were, they are not anomalies – and across overseeing 32 collections yearly. “I had all these voices in my head, asking so many questions,” he went on to tell Vanity Fair. “I was afraid to say no, I thought it showed weakness... I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.” Upon breaking from Lanvin, Alber Elbaz expressed similar sentiments. He recalled “finishing a collection and being half-dead, and knowing that you’re late with the next collection.”

“That kind of pressure to perform, to create and be increasingly more original or outrageous would be a strain on any of us,” says Victoria Tischler, psychologist and Professor of Arts and Health at the University of West London.

One London-based menswear designer, who requested anonymity, said the creative fashion process can feel insular: “You’re left alone with your thoughts for hours on end. Even if the studio is full in the day, by night it’s just you and your burden. For me, the biggest pressure was all these people depending on me to deliver. In the day I could face those fears, but when I was alone, they swooped in on me. Until I scaled the whole operation right back to a very small collection, it was starting to look like there was no way out.”

A life less ordinary

But this isn’t just something that affects designers. It’s something that affects millions of us. There are four kinds of creativity, according to the psychologist James C Kaufman, from ‘mini C’ (the creativity that happens in the learning process), to ‘little C’ (everyday creativity) to ‘pro C’ (expert level creativity) to ‘Big C’ (creative genius). According to government figures, the creative industries in the UK are worth almost £10million an hour, and account for one in every 11 jobs – that amounts to a lot of ‘pro C’ activity. Creative minds are likely to approach problem solving in a certain kind of way and perceive the world a little differently to others. They’re likely to be more adventurous, more exploratory. They may struggle to stick to conventional schedules, or find the pressures of budgets and deadlines particularly stressful. And, if recent studies are to be believed, this may make them more prone to burnout.

The neuroscientist Nancy C Andreasen spent three decades studying writers and found that they were far more likely than the average population to experience some kind of mental-health episode (about 80% of the people she studied had some kind of ‘mood disturbance’, compared with 30% in her control group). But she also found commonalities in the way they thought. “Creative people are better at recognising relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see,” she wrote. They also tend to take more risks and have to persist in the face of doubt and rejection – “because they believe strongly in the value of what they do”. Unfortunately, this often leads to what Andreasen described as “psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

Andreasen’s study was based on a small number of people but in 2015, research by the Icelandic genetics lab deCODE, made headlines when they claimed writers, painters, dancers and artists were 25% more likely to carry the genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And more research suggests people with creative jobs may have higher levels of ‘schizotypal’ personality traits – characteristics which may include unusual perceptions, impulsivity, a tendency for magical thinking.

On their own, these traits can lead to great innovations, but ‘thinking differently’ often comes with its own set of challenges. “Often creativity is ascribed to a divergent cognitive style,” explains Gordon Claridge, retired professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University. “This means that people with particularly creative minds are likely to find unusual or indirect solutions to problems.” These natural tendencies, combined with the pressures of modern working life, can make it hard for the creative person to stay on top of deadlines, or function in the normal world. As Claridge points out, the creative state can be “incredibly introspective, with artists shutting themselves away for periods of time. It’s not always a healthy creative process.”

But – and this is a very important but – we don’t have to be ‘tortured’ to be creative. In fact, argues the American psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, “engagement in everyday forms of creativity – expressions of originality and meaningfulness in daily life – certainly do not require suffering”. There may be a link between creativity and mental illness, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that creatives must experience angst to do their best work.

Indeed, society has always romanticised this link. A quick look at Pinterest throws up quotes on madness from Virginia Woolf, Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath, all designed to look like inspirational mantras. As if there is something impossibly glamorous about a troubled mind – particularly one that has bouts of genius. Meanwhile, for most of us, finding an outlet for creativity is more likely to keep you in good health. Evidence suggests engaging in tasks such as expressive writing can improve wellbeing (some studies suggest it can boost your immune system).

Signs of recovery

In the fashion world, there are signs things are changing. Just as other high-pressure industries, such as banking, have adapted to create wellness initiatives for staff, there’s evidence fashion is following suit. “Conversations about mental health and burnout are happening,” says Fabian Hirose, a strategic consultant who works with luxury fashion brands. “It’s such a huge industry, with so many different facets, but finally the conversations are happening.”

“Within the industry people are more supportive of one another,” explains Jessica Dubeck, fashion consultant. “And now there’s a greater openness to different ways of working. We’ve seen big names like Alber Elbaz and Raf Simons step back from incredible roles [at Lanvin and Dior respectively]. They had massive ateliers and salaries but were made unhappy because of the creativity they were unable to fulfil. It’s destigmatised it for the industry as a whole.”

Similarly, Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor & Rolf have abandoned ready-to-wear to focus on couture. As Gaultier explained at the time, the “frenetic pace” of modern fashion didn’t “leave any freedom, nor the necessary time, to find fresh ideas and to innovate.” And the subtext – a much better work-life balance.

In January this year, Kering Group, which owns Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Bottega Veneta among others, took that further by announcing it would extend its parental leave policy in a bid “to foster a better work-life balance and to promote gender equality”. Within modelling, more agencies are promoting the mental as well as physical wellbeing of their talent. Tara Davies, founder of Linden Staub agency, says, “Nowadays models are expected to be online brands with big social followings. We’re working to ensure the models are robust enough to handle this kind of visibility. Above all, we try to preach the importance of downtime; of doing things that feed your soul not just your Instagram.”

The fashion industry – with its reputation for agenda-setting and embracing creative talent, is uniquely placed to forge new ways to excel creatively and stay safe mentally. As Tischler says, “In this industry people are encouraged to be flamboyant or eccentric, so there already exists a natural acceptance within the fashion world, and embracing mental wellbeing is the next step.” And this could have implications for all of us, helping us to harness the positives of our creativity, without being cruel to ourselves.

For information and support with mental health issues, visit or call 0300 123 3393 Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm

Arts therapies

Creative solutions to a range of issues

Dance movement therapy

Based on the premise the body and mind are inseparable, in dance movement therapy you’ll be guided through a series of movements by a qualified therapist. They’ll look at body language and encourage you to express emotions in a less inhibited way than by speaking about them. It has been seen as effective at helping to improve self-esteem.


A dramatherapist uses performance arts to help you explore and address a range of emotional or social difficulties. In sessions you’ll use techniques such as improvisation, storytelling and role-play and be encouraged to experiment with new ways of thinking about old problems by taking into account alternative viewpoints and thought processes.

Music therapy

For those who suffer from anxiety, eating disorders and addiction, musical expression aims to relieve stress, aid concentration and boost confidence. Improvisation is key: at any one time you might partake in sing-alongs, song writing and listening exercises all aimed to help to improve emotional wellbeing through a greater engagement with the present moment.

Visual art therapy

You’ll use different mediums including photography, paint, collage and clay to create something meaningful to you, with the guidance of a therapist. It’s beneficial for those who find it hard to verbalise their feelings, and have manic depression or low self-esteem. Art therapy allows you to express thoughts in a less pressurised way than by talking about them.

Photography: Getty, Rex


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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.