Creativity and Mental Illness

We often hear of strong connections between creativity and mental illness, of the ‘mad genius.’ Current research shows that there is a connection between genius and mental illness.

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”  Salvador Dali

Making the Connection Between Creativity and Mental Illness

If you, a family member or friend are creative and also suffer from a mental illness, you are not alone. Creative people have enriched our lives with their art and inventions. The world would be a sorry place without them. 

But of course, the other side of the coin is the suffering that mental illness causes. And that is no fun. The trick is to find the best balance between suffering and creativity, of the connections between creativity and mental illness.

The Findings of a Bi Polar Professor 

Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the findings of some 20 or 30 scientific studies support the notion of the ‘tortured genius.’ 

Creativity seems to be most strongly linked to mood disorders, and especially Bipolar Disorder. Jamison suffers from this herself. My own father, an intelligent, creative thinking was bi-polar. I’m not. But I carry the gene and I am an artist and creative thinker. 

Jamison is interested in the boundaries between normal and abnormal moods and  behaviours. She believes that creativity and exuberance happen between the normal and abnormal. So it seems that sometimes creativity comes with a price.

“The tie between high accomplishment in business, science and the arts and mood disorders is far from coincidental,” she says. There is a connection between creativity and mental illness.

Have a look at Define Creativity and Quotes on Creativity and How to Increase Creativity to learn more.

Artists Who Suffered From Mental Illness

  • Graham Greene, author, had Bipolar Disorder. 
  • Charlie Schultz, creator of the comic strip, Peanuts, battled both depression and anxiety throughout his life.
  • Franz Kafka had Clinical Depression and Social Anxiety.
  • Sylvia Plath: The “Sylvia Plath Effect” is a psychological term referring to the connection between poets and mental illness. Plath wrote viscerally raw poetry and suffered years of depression, electroshock therapy and eventual suicide. Her book, The Collected Poems won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her poetry.
  • Sidney Sheldon, novelist, who won Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards for his work on stage and screen had Bipolar Disorder.
  • Dylan Thomas is described as having many conditions: Alcoholism, borderline personality disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Clinical Depression.
  • Virginia Woolf suffered from Bipolar II Disorder. Her euphoric experiences and incredible creativity allowed her to create great works of literature. But she had episodes of depression and suicidal behaviour. The ‘rest cures’ prescribed by physicians cut off her ability to create and write when she needed it most.
  • Winston Churchill, author and British prime minister, suffered from Clinical Depression and described his bouts as "black dog.”
  • Ernest Hemingway, American writer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1953) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954) for his novel The Old Man and the Sea hadBi-Polar Disorder, Insomnia and Alcoholism.
  • Vincent Van Gogh, visual artist, had periods of extreme enthusiasm and feverish painting followed by exhaustion, depression and ultimately suicide.
  • Frida Kahlo, Mexican, visual artist, suffered from depression.
  • Cole Porter and Charles Mingus, musicians, suffered from depression.
  • Mark Rothko, visual artist, Clinical Depression.

Studies On the Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

In 2012, American arts journalist Christopher Zara published Tortured Artists, showing how the tortured artist stereotype relates to all of creative disciplines — film, theatre, literature, music, and visual art. 

He profiles many artists such as Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Michelangelo, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Amy Winehouse and Charles Schultz, showing the connection between creativity and mental illness, between the art and the artist's personal suffering.

When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder. Almost half of these artists failed to live past age 60.

In 2011, a team of experts at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet studied whether more psychiatric diagnoses, such as Depression, alcohol and drug abuse, Sshizophenria and Anxiety  were linked to creativity as well. 

The team found that people who work in creative fields are diagnosed and treated with a mental illness more frequently than in the general public and that Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia are more common in families of artists and scientists when compared with society in general. More and more information points to connections between creativity and mental illness.

The Take Away From This Information

Because of increased information on the connection between creativity and mental illness, we know that doctors will need to recognize how medical intervention will affect a person, that it will probably lessen creativity — just as the ‘rest cures’ prescribed for Virginia Woolf’s prevented her from writing.

Doctors will need to stop looking at patients as as either sick or well, because in the case of creativity, sickness has its upsides. Drugs can stabilize a person. But in so doing, they can also alter a creative person’s personality, process, and product. 

Approches to the treatment of mental illness are now beginning to move forward. Medicine can help. But health care professionals need to work closely with their patients to figure out the best treatment. Too often medication is prescribed to creative people without taking all the effects into consideration. 

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