The aesthetics of mania: an introduction for health professionals

Rob van Beek


The aim of this chapter is to facilitate discussion of mania and manic psychosis as aesthetic experiences, that is, as experiences that may be intrinsically rewarding and meaningful for the person who is experiencing them. In the humanities, various forms of criticism are used to discuss artworks and aesthetic phenomena. In this chapter, readers from a variety of mental health backgrounds are invited to consider some of the experiences of mania and manic psychosis from a viewpoint that is informed by the arts and philosophy. This chapter aims to encourage humanities-based discussions of mental health phenomena amongst groups of health professionals.

Mood swings are part of life. Everyone experiences highs and lows, mostly in response to life events. Many people reading this chapter will have experienced persistent low mood and will have first-hand experience of how mood influences ideas and feelings about past, present and future life. Other readers (like this author) may also have experienced persistent high moods, for which they may have been hospitalised and for which they may take long-term medication. Additionally, in a book for mental health professionals, almost all readers will have experience of working with people who have had, or who are in, extreme moods.

There has been a long and ongoing debate over the nature and status of 'mental health' and 'mental illness'. Even the appropriate way to talk about these issues is contested and controversial. This chapter is not concerned with these battles. Whatever the intellectual status of extreme psychological states, their capacity to cause suffering to the person experiencing them and to those close to them is undeniable. This distress is of course compounded by prejudice, fear and misunderstanding. In a broad sense, the aim here is to show that extreme and extraordinary experiences can be discussed as part of, and alongside, other features of our culture.

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