What Mental Illness Did Yayoi Kusama Have? (7+ Artistic Effects)

In this brief article, we will be discussing Yayoi Kusama and her mental illness. We will be also discussing why she is so famous and why she is a topic of discussion in the field of mental health. 

We will also talk about the link between creativity and mental illness and the phenomenon ‘Art Therapy’. 

Yayoi Kusama and her mental illness

Yayoi Kusama is a renowned artist who is known for using art as an expression of her hallucinations and obsessions. As a contemporary artist herself, she is the most recent instance of art therapy, a phenomenon that can be used as a means of communicating those thoughts, conflicts and defences that cannot be verbalized by the patients.

Ever since she was a child, Yayoi Kusama was driven by her hallucination, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to create an enormous amount of art. Since the 70’s she has been living in a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with compulsive neurosis among other things. People say that to talk to her is like talking to her art.

Kusama (born 1929) grew up in Japan during World War II.as a child she reports the flowers and animals to be talking to her while she was painting them. She was only 10 years when she became obsessed with her paintings to understand her inner visions.

It was at this age she started getting hallucinations of “patterns moving, multiplying, engulfing everything around her and finally consuming her” she called this process ‘Self-Obliteration’. 

It’s when she started painting out her visions. She used painting as an outlet for her deep psychological turmoil and therefore it helped her in gaining control over her anxiety. 

She reports that her mother was abusive in childhood. There were constant fights at her home, that her mother would break her paintings and throw them away as she didn’t like her daughter obsessing over her paintings. 

She also reports that her aversion towards men and obsession with sexuality resulted from being forced to spy on her father’s extramarital relationships by her mother. “Sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me”, she would say. Even her paintings and other artworks, especially soft sculptures, share a sexual theme.

In the ‘50s, angry with her family and her country, she fled to New York determined to become a world-famous artist. She says that it was a terrible time for her struggling to survive in New York with no money. 

She explains how obsessed she was with her paintings then that as soon as she got some money, she bought canvases and paint. Even though she was starving and freezing and wanted to die, she still kept on painting.  

She worked magnificently on an enormous white net of dots that grew out of the painting onto her floor, furniture and even on herself. A year later things started getting better and in the 60’s she became a part of New York’s art world.

Eventually, she started making psychedelic performance art against capitalism, boredom, and for a new, peaceful and colourful world. She says ‘her major goal is to reduce the class divide and to see the world helping each other so that people can strive to live in peace’

She explains that she does not consider herself as an artist; she has been pursuing art only to deal with her illness. She says that all her arts originate from her hallucinations that only she can see and therefore is just a replication of her hallucination and obsessional images. 

She says that if she wasn’t an artist it would have been unbearable and she would have been completely heartbroken to experience such hallucinations and obsessions. She, therefore, promotes art therapy as a successful method. She would say that the only method that she found relieving her illness was creating art.  

Creativity and mental illness

It’s seen throughout history that there exists a link between creative art and mental illness. Many well-known creative people in arts like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Vincent Vann Gogh have been suffering from mental illness.

A study by Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist in 1987 found out that there exists a link between creativity and mental illness. In her research, she found that out of the 30 writers she interviewed 80% of them had been hospitalized for some mood disorder like bipolar disorder or depression.

Other studies support the above finding that there is a higher incidence in mental disorders among creative people. Other studies found that there is a higher incidence even among the family members of creative people.

These results strongly suggest a genetic link or maybe there is a neurological link as well. Some studies found that the brain acts similarly when being creative and when mentally ill. 

Some other studies suggest that neurotic people are more creative. Mostly because neurotic people are highly anxious and in preparation for a threat, they imagine the worst possibilities. This penchant for imagining the worst might help the creative people to imagine solutions that most people wouldn’t.

Mental disorders are often entitled to stimulate creative expression by leading to oneiric images. In an attempt to express what he was feeling during an episode of shattered nerves, Edvard Munch created ‘the scream’, one of the most famous pictures to come out of the history of expressionism. 

There are many more artists who use their art as a coping strategy for their mental illness. Few studies even suggest that art has been effective in treating the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

Art therapy

Art therapy is an integrative psychotherapeutic technique that incorporates creative processes to improve mental health and well being. It uses the process of making art as a means to improve one’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.

It’s when they saw many artists suffering from mental illness expressing their thoughts through drawings and other forms of art, people started exploring art as a healing strategy. Yayoi Kusama is one such example.

It’s said that while creating an art individual find it easy to focus on their thoughts, perceptions and imaginations. People usually express their inner world through their art rather than the outer world. 

It’s said that art is so powerful that in times of war and dictatorship artists are the first to be censored and silenced. Experts say that the power of art or creative process is mirroring one’s life process. 

The idea that we can take a metaphor and visual symbols and break them down and reframe our life into safe expression when words are so hard to communicate makes art a powerful healing strategy.

An art therapist is someone who is trained both in art and psychology who have extensive knowledge about human development, psychological theories, and clinical practices as well as the enormous history the art has with the hope and healing through the creative process.


In this brief article, we discussed who Yayoi Kusama is and what her mental illness is. We also discussed why she is so famous and why she is a topic of discussion in the field of mental health.

In this article, we found that Yayoi Kusama is a well-known artist who has been experiencing hallucination ever since she was 10 years old. She translated all the images from her hallucinations and obsessive imagination into art. 

She reported having given up on life if it wasn’t for art while dealing with her mental illness. This statement received a lot of attention to seeing art as a powerful healing strategy.

If you’ve enjoyed the Yayoi Kusama and her mental illness above, I would recommend you to take a look at Joseph Campbell’s reading list, who is a great artist and writer and ”How Did Bob Ross Die?” the story of a great painter.

In this brief article, we also discussed the link between creativity and mental illness and also briefly explained what art therapy is. 

FAQ: Yayoi Kusama and her mental illness

Do art therapists diagnose the artist’s or the client’s painting?

No, an art therapist doesn’t diagnose the painting. Since art is so subjective, the client’s image is their image and only they can make sense of their imagery. It’s giving them back control of their life even if they may feel hopeless and helpless, the therapist is there to listen and support them and provide them with a safe environment. 

What kind of art will I make in art therapy?

The kind of art you make in art therapy depends on your interest and a certain type of art that can benefit therapeutically for your situation.  Art therapy may involve a wide range of creative materials and processes like painting, creating art journals, making masks, playing with clay etc. in art therapy, it’s the creative process the main focus rather than the art itself most of the time. 

Do I need to be an artist or have training or experience in art to attend art therapy?

No, you don’t need to be an artist or have an experience in art to attend art therapy. Since your therapist is well trained in both psychology and visual art, he will help you in the process of making art by guiding you to create art using various materials. 


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