Where Do Mental Illness And Creativity Meet?

Mar 1, 2013
Originally published on October 5, 2016 5:09 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Unquiet Mind.

About Joshua Walters' TED Talk

Comedian Joshua Walters, who's bipolar, walks the line between mental illness and mental "skillness." He asks: What's the right balance between medicating craziness away, and riding the manic edge of creativity and drive?

About Joshua Walters

Walters is a comedian, poet, educator and performer, whose work explores language, creativity, beatboxing and madness. He incorporates elements of spoken word and beatbox into his shows in a mashup of comedy, intimate reflection and unpredictable antics. In the past two years, Walters has performed in theaters and universities throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. His eclectic combination of performance disciplines and his activity as an educator in mental health have given him a national platform and audience. In 2002, he co-founded the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance Young Adults chapter in San Francisco, one of the few support groups in the country that's specifically for mentally ill young adults. As a facilitator, Walters developed humor to address the subject of mental illness, reframing it as a positive. Walters speaks as a mental health educator, and has engaged in mental health advocacy at conventions and in classrooms nationwide.

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Now Elyn Saks has been successful in spite of her mental illness. Performer Joshua Walters has been successful because of his. He gave this TED talk in New York.


JOSHUA WALTERS: My name is Joshua Walters. I'm a performer, but as far as being a performer I'm also diagnosed bipolar. I reframe that as a positive because the crazier I get on stage, the more entertaining I become. When I was 16 in San Francisco, I had my breakthrough manic episode in which I thought I was Jesus Christ. Maybe you thought that was, you know, scary but actually there's no amount of drugs you can take that can get you as high as if you think you're Jesus Christ.


WALTERS: I was sent to a place, a psych ward, and in the psych ward everyone is doing their own one- man show.


WALTERS: There's no audience like this to justify their rehearsal time.


WALTERS: They're just practicing. One day they'll get here.


WALTERS: Now, when I got out, I was diagnosed and I was given medications by a psychiatrist. Okay, Josh why don't we give you some, why don't we give you some, give you some, give you some Zyprexa, okay? At least that's what it says on my pen.


WALTERS: Some of you are in the field I can see. I can feel your noise. The first half of high school was the struggle of the manic episode and the second half was the over medications of these drugs where I was sleeping through high school. The second half was just one big nap pretty much in class. When I got out, I had a choice. I could either deny my mental illness or embrace my mental 'skill-ness.'

WALTERS: Pah-pa-rah!


WALTERS: There's a movement going on right now to reframe mental illness as a positive, at least the hypomanic edge part of it. Now, if you don't know what hypomania is, it's like an engine that's out of control maybe a Ferrari engine with no brakes. Many of the speakers here, many of you in the audience have that creative edge, if you know what I'm talking about. You're driven to do something that everyone has told you is impossible. And there's a book John Gardner, John Gardner wrote this book called, "The Hypomanic Edge," in which Christopher Columbus and Ted Turner and Steve Jobs and all these business minds have this edge to compete. A different book was written not too long ago in the mid-90's called, called, "Touch with Fire" by Kay Redfield Jamison in which it was looked at in a creative sense, in which Mozart and Beethoven and Van Gogh all had this manic depression that they were suffering with. Some of them committed suicide. So it wasn't all the good side of the illness. Now, recently there has been development in this field and there was an article written in the New York Times, September 2010, in which investors were looking for entrepreneurs that had this kind of spectrum.


WALTERS: If you know what I'm talking about, not maybe full bipolar, but they were in the bipolar spectrum. Where on one side maybe you think you're Jesus, and on the other side maybe they just make you a lot of money.


WALTERS: Your call, your call. And everyone's somewhere in the middle. Everyone's somewhere in the middle. So maybe, you know, there's no such thing as crazy. And being diagnosed with a mental illness doesn't mean you're crazy. But maybe it just means you're more sensitive to what most people can't see. Or feel. Maybe no one's really crazy, but everyone is just a little bit mad. How much? Depends on where you fall on the spectrum. How much depends on how lucky you are. Thank you.


RAZ: The former Joshua Walters at his New York TED talk.


RAZ: In just a moment, writer Jon Ronson takes the psychopath test, our show today, The Unquiet Mind. I'm Guy Raz, you're listening to the TED radio hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.