The Complex Correlation Between Arts & Substance Abuse

Throughout history, drug use has always been tightly connected to art, and more precisely to many famous and renowned artists. From famous musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse, to someone like Vincent van Gogh whose art depicts a complex journey of untreated mental health conditions and hard substance abuse, there is a commonly accepted marriage between drugs and arts.  

While it is important to note that, of course, not all artists turn to drugs, the correlation between art and substance abuse is too widely spread to be ignored. Truth be told the relation between drugs and arts is multifaceted and goes deep into unexpected directions.

Why are creative minds more likely to walk on a mental health tightrope and slip into the intricacies of substance need and use? The cliché of rock and roll and drugs is here to stay. But here, we will explore the various factors of the creative life that can not only drive the need for hard substances but that have also been instrumental in normalizing it.

Can there be art without drugs? It turns out that society makes it incredibly difficult for creative individuals to express themselves freely. Substance abuse is not an accident in this sector; it appears more and more as an indispensable coping mechanism.



The link between creativity and mental health issues

Research has consistently shown a connection between creativity and mental health issues. In a published letter by Vincent van Gogh, the painter describes symptoms of depression very accurately:

“… what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Van Gogh is not an isolated case. Many artists across many professions have expressed their suffering, ranging from Tchaikovsky to Virginia Woolf. A 2017 study explores the likelihood of creative individuals to experience mood disorders, including depression.  

Indeed, creative individuals often have heightened emotional sensitivity, which lets them tap into their innermost thoughts and feelings, which provides a wellspring of inspiration for their art. Yet, this heightened sensitivity has also been associated with high vulnerability to mental health challenges. The very qualities that enable their artistic expression may also contribute to their emotional struggles, leading some artists to seek solace in drugs as a means of coping with their inner turmoil.


The link between different sexualities and creativity

Members of the LGBTQ community often experience the world through a unique lens, facing societal challenges and stereotypes that can significantly impact their mental health. Author, Youtuber, and presenter Daniel Howell names his sexuality as an important experience that not only ties back to his mental health but also to his creativity.

Any experiences as minorities can indeed provide a depth of creativity and artistic expression that is distinctive and powerful. Research suggests that LGBTQ individuals may have through their experience a heightened capacity for empathy, emotional understanding, and creative thinking. These qualities, coupled with the ability to channel their struggles into their art, can significantly contribute to their artistic brilliance.

Despite the strength and resilience exhibited by many LGBTQ artists, it is worth mentioning that this demographic faces a higher risk of isolation and depressive moods, which can lead to substance abuse. The never-ending pressure to conform while facing discrimination and societal prejudice is a high trigger to drug use, which becomes a means of escape or self-medication through emotional distress.



The link between neurodiversity and creativity

Neurodivergent individuals, such as individuals with ADHD, often exhibit heightened creativity. Their unique cognitive processes and ability to think outside the box contribute to groundbreaking artistic creations. Leonardo da Vince is a prime example of someone who would have likely experienced high ADHD, judging by the diversity of his career spectrum. Yet, it is important to note that neurodivergent individuals are also prone to an increased risk of mental health challenges, as may go through life experiencing discrimination, profound isolation, and even childhood traumas.  

Trauma, and more important past, forgotten trauma, has been seen to instigate a vicious drug addiction cycle. For individuals facing neurodiversity exclusion throughout their lives without adequate support, hard substances can provide not only a response to childhood trauma but also a stimulation for the unique wiring of their brains. Therefore, it can be hard to break free without professional guidance and support. Services, such as a dual diagnosis treatment center for addiction, are the first to point out the complex connection between trauma and drug use.

With trauma playing a central role in neurodiversity lives, it is easy to see why neurodivergent minds may struggle to make sense of their reality. Neurodiversity presents a different way for the mind to perceive and process information, which allows for innovative and unconventional ideas. But, an unconventional way of looking at life also opens the door to heightened levels of pain, confusion, and traumatic exclusion.


The lack of recognition despite the need for art and creativity

Art and creativity are essential aspects of human expression, emotional processing, and the exploration of complex themes and narratives. Creative content has always played a vital role in conveying societal, cultural, and personal experiences throughout history. Yet, despite the role of art in society, creative professionals struggle to make a living and receive the recognition they truly deserve.  

The lack of financial stability, along with the absence of societal validation, can create immense stress and pressure for artists. Needless to say, this combination of factors contributes to feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and hopelessness. The temptation to seek refuge in drugs may appear as a self-destructive choice from the outside. But, for many creatives, it is the sole coping mechanism available.

Furthermore, the rise of digital platforms has truly transformed the artistic landscape, making it more difficult for individuals to stand out and get seen. With an oversaturated market that constantly demands novelty without providing support, more and more creative minds choose to unlock new thinking paths through the use of drugs too.


Can there be artists without drugs? This is an important question and one that needs to explore the ability for society to embrace people from different horizons exploring their heightened sensibility and neurodiversity openly. Drugs and art go together because society and art do not. Will there be a future where artists do not need to alter their brain chemistry in an effort to cope with an ill-fitted society?

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