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creativity and mental health

'Something like this couldn't make me stop enjoying Munsch's books,' said one parent.Ashley Hutcheson

In the book Purple, Green and Yellow by bestselling author Robert Munsch, a girl named Brigid draws on her entire body with "super-indelible-never-come-off-till-you're-dead-and-maybe-even-later colouring markers" and, when she washes, is rendered invisible, much to her mother's horror.

"'Don't worry,' said Brigid, and she coloured herself all over till she looked perfect. Even better than before," Mr. Munsch writes.

" Purple, Green and Yellow is my take on depression," the real-life Mr. Munsch says in an interview. "That's what it was like for me: You want to kill yourself, but you have to be funny. You colour yourself for the world."

Known as much for his hyperkinetic performances as his funny-with-an-edge children's books, Mr. Munsch, 64, has struggled his entire life with bipolar disorder.

From his "wild and wonky" behaviour as a teenager, through to his years studying to be a priest, then as a daycare worker with a gift for storytelling, he largely suffered in silence and accepted the wild mood swings: "When you grow up with it, it seems like the way life is," he says.

But the bouts of depression and related alcoholism grew ever worse, and Mr. Munsch finally got help - therapy and antidepressants - when he was close to 50.

While many artists fear that treatment for mental illness will rob them of their magical je ne sais quoi , Mr. Munsch had the opposite result: "Taking antidepressants didn't interfere with my creativity, the depression interfered with my creativity."

Better still, instead of having to paint himself happy, he actually began to enjoy the performances. "After treatment, it became more fun to do the shows - it made me better."

Mr. Munsch, who has sold more than 40 million books, says you can't really appreciate success when you're sick. "Bottom line: Life is much better now that I'm treated. I've made peace with the pills."

David Goldbloom, senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says the notion that there is a fine line between genius and madness is well ingrained. The idea stretches back to Aristotle, who mused: "Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia."

While there is some evidence that creative people are more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses, research also shows that very few of those who are treated experience a loss of creativity, Dr. Goldbloom says. "We have got to get away from Puccini-like romantic notions of mad inspiration of starving artists in a garret apartment."

The reality, he says, is that "there are many creative people untouched by mental illness and many people with mental illness who are not at all creative."

Kara Keith is one of the creative souls. A musical prodigy, she was on her way to a career as a concert pianist when she was a teenager, but practised so obsessively that she ended up with a hand injury.

At the age of 19, she moved to the rain forest near Tofino, B.C., and, upon returning home to Calgary, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and admitted to hospital. Ms. Keith refused treatment. "I felt very artistic. ... I never went on meds because I never thought I was sick."

The young woman drifted: She painted, sang, wrote; she made a lot of friends and alienated many others with her bizarre behaviour. She ended up homeless in San Francisco, abusing drugs and alcohol.

"There is definitely some mystique to being a mad person," Ms. Keith says with a laugh. "Was I creative? You bet. The ideas were flowing. The problem is you can't capture and organize them."

In 1996, while serving as artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts, she was in the midst of a full-blown manic episode and "went nuts" at a party. She received an ultimatum: Get treated or get out.

What followed was three months of intense outpatient treatment, medication to treat her bipolar illness (lithium, antipsychotics and antidepressants) and a lot of self-doubt.

"I won't lie: At first, the drugs were horrible. I couldn't write, I couldn't sing, I couldn't paint. It was devastating. But if you stick with it, the creativity comes back and it comes back better," Ms. Keith says.

Now 35, she makes her living as a professional musician. She has written and produced five albums of original music that have been met with critical acclaim, if not massive sales.

But she is living a "happily stable, healthy, productive, sober life," she says.

"Recovery isn't easy. It's really hard. But it's worth it."

André Picard is The Globe and Mail's public health reporter.