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Conference looks at creativity and mental illness

[Dr. William Kenny]
William Kenny (Psychiatry) is hosting Creativity and the Mind, a conference looking at mental illness and creativity, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Friday. (University Communications)

As a professor at Queen’s and counsellor for the past four years at Health, Counselling and Disability Services, William Kenny (Psychiatry) has been immersed in the workings of the mind, including when it comes to mental health and creativity.

On Friday, Dr. Kenny is hosting the academic conference Creativity and the Mind, the first of its kind at the university, which will take a closer look at mental health from a spectrum of approaches.

The conference is inspired by similar events Dr. Kenny has attended in the United States that offered a view of mental health and treatment at odds with the mainstream approach where a patient is assessed and often treated with a pill.

This will be the focus of Creativity and the Mind, Dr. Kenny says.

“The conference is an attempt to bring together mental health people, artists, scientists, people who look at this from a different management (perspective), as well as the general public, and then try to come to grips with ‘What do we mean? How do people think?’ this sense of ‘What are we understanding, what are we labelling?’ and trying to broaden the dialogue, really, about mental illness both from a scientific standpoint and a humanistic standpoint within the general public.”

A conference he attended in Syracuse, NY, brought together mental health professionals and creative people, including a poet and a professor in fashion. It changed not only the way Dr. Kenny viewed mental health treatment but the links with creativity as well.

“Whenever I visit an art museum, especially modern art, which really deconstructs the mind actually, I come away a better therapist, with a better way of approaching people,” he says.

The Queen’s event, held at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC), will follow a similar path and offer a broad range of discussions connected to mental health and creativity.

One example is Anne Koval, a professor of art history at Mount Allison University and a poet herself. Her discussion will be on ekphrastic poetry, a form where the writer focuses on a visual work of art.

During the interactive sessions following her talk, Dr. Koval will lead a group to different paintings within the AEAC and encourage them to write their own poetry.

The key for the day, Dr. Kenny says, will be for participants to be willing to explore a wide range of ideas.

“They should come with an open mind, hopefully, and also a hopeful one,” he says. “Instead of seeing mental illness as a dead end, they’re seeing that it can open a doorway to understanding ourselves better, not just people who have an emotional illness.”

Creativity and mental illness have long been linked. Dr. Kenny explains there is a theory that the link is genetic but that the gene can affect members of the same family very differently.

“Creativity is usually the product of off-the-wall thinking, asynchronous thinking, for creative people.  Whether it is an artist or Steve Jobs, they think out of the box, so they are (considered) a genius,” he says. “Well that same out-of the-box thinking in another member of the family, they are overwhelmed, they can’t deal with it and therefore they develop an  illness as opposed to their brother, sister or cousin who becomes a very creative force.”

The all-day conference starts at 8 am and will conclude around 5:30 pm. Registration is required for the conference. Fees are: $140 - Mental Health Professionals/Family Physicians; $90 - General Public; $70 - Students/Residents