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  1. #1

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?
    All poets are mad," asserted English writer Robert Burton in his 1621 book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton was exaggerating, of course. However, many people do believe that artists are more likely than others to be mentally ill. Many well-known artists, writers and musicians had a history of mental illness, in some cases leading to suicide.

    Writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, painter Vincent van Gogh, and musician Kurt Cobain all committed suicide.

    Painters Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe, and musicians Cole Porter and Charles Mingus suffered from depression.

    Is there actually a link between artistic creativity and mental illness? Most artists are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not artists. However, several studies have suggested that artists are more likely than others to suffer from a class of mental illnesses called mood disorders.

    Mood disorders
    Mood disorders include major depression and manic-depressive illness. Major depression is characterized by prolonged deep despair. Alternating periods of euphoria and despair characterize manic- depressive illness. Suicidal thoughts are common in people suffering from either of these disorders.

    One of the first controlled studies of the creativity/mood disorder link was completed by University of Iowa psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreason. She compared 30 creative writers at the University of Iowa with 30 people holding jobs that were not inherently creative. She found that 80% of the writers said they had experienced either manic-depressive illness or major depression, while only 30% of the people in noncreative jobs said they had.

    Andreason published her results in the October 1987 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

    In the late 1980s, Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison also examined the link. She studied 47 painters, sculptors, playwrights and poets, all of whom had received high honors in their fields. Jamison found that 38% of the artists had been treated for a mood disorder. Only about 1% of people in the general population report manic- depressive episodes and about 5% report major depression at some point in their lives.

    Skeptics have criticized both of these studies for two reasons. First, both researchers studied very few people. Studies with few people are more likely than large studies to include a group of people that does not accurately represent the population at large.

    Second, both researchers interviewed the artists themselves or had the artists fill out questionnaires. It is possible that the interviewers were biased or that the artists misrepresented their true mental state.

    Biographical clues
    A third study attempted to avoid the flaws of the previous research. For 10 years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women prominent in a variety of fields, including art, music, science, sports, politics and business. He studied these people by reading 2,200 biographies.

    Ludwig argued that biographers were less likely than psychiatrists to believe in advance that a person has a mental illness. This would make biographies less biased than psychiatric interviews. Biographers also typically draw information about their subjects from a variety of sources, which would make misrepresentations of mental state more difficult.

    The Guilford Press published the results of Ludwig's study in 1995, in a book called The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy.

    Ludwig concluded that "members of the artistic professions or creative arts as a whole suffer from more types of mental difficulties and do so over longer periods of their lives than members of the other professions."

    He found that, as teen-agers, between 29% and 34% of future artists and musicians suffered from symptoms of mental illness. In comparison, only 3% to 9% of future scientists, athletes and businesspeople suffered similar symptoms.

    As adults, between 59% and 77% of artists, writers and musicians suffered mental illness, while only 18% to 29% of the other professionals did. Ludwig's findings seemed to confirm the link between mental illness and the artistic temperament. But what is the nature of that link?

    Some researchers, including Jamison, speculate that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing mania reads "sharpened and unusually creative thinking."

    People with mood disorders also experience a broad range of deep emotions. This combination of symptoms might lend itself to prolific artistic creativity.

    Ludwig's studies provided some support for the theory that mood disorders can improve creativity. The artistic achievements of about 16% of the artists, writers and musicians he studied improved during times of mental upset.

    Ludwig, however, believes other factors also contribute to the high rate of mood disorders among artists. He argues that people in many professions, including sports, politics and business, are extremely creative. He thinks that more people in artistic professions have mental illness because those professions are more accepting of mental illness. As a result, Ludwig speculates, people with mental illness are naturally drawn to artistic professions.

    Still others believe that artistic occupations might by their nature magnify the symptoms of mental illness. Artists, musicians and writers often work alone. When they begin to feel upset or depressed, they would not have as much support and encouragement as do athletes, scientists and businesspeople who work with others.

    Everyone agrees that treatments for mood disorders need to be improved. Between 60% and 80% of people who commit suicide suffered from a mood disorder. Many people with mood disorders medicate themselves with alcohol or illegal drugs. Despite the pain of mental illness, some people with mood disorders avoid treatments because of potential side effects, such as mental sluggishness.

    These side effects can be particularly debilitating for people, such as artists, musicians and writers, whose work springs in large part from states of intellectual fluidity.

    This article was originally printed in the December 1996 issue of Today's Science On File, which each month publishes for students the latest developments in science, medicine, technology and the environment. Copyright (c) 1996 Facts On File News Services.

  2. #2

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    I found this article very facinating to me as I am an artist myself and I know many friends who are artists and I think this could very well be true.

  3. #3

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    A few years ago, Science magazine had a fascinating article on mood disorders and musicians. Then article looked at a time line of the composer Shumann (or possibly Schubert?), comparing the manic episodes over the course of his life with his musical compositions. It was very striking: In his depressions, he wrote very little music. In his normal state, he wrote several compositions. But something like 75-80% of his music was created in his manic states.

  4. #4

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    I can totally see this. I'm an artist, as well. I draw, like photography, and write poetry/songs. My art usually comes from mania while my poems usually stem from depression. People know when I'm doing okay by my lack of poetry. :-)

    It has also been suggested that Jimi Hendrix was Bipolar. I'm curious how many of those that od'd had a mental illness.

    Ludwig, however, believes other factors also contribute to the high rate of mood disorders among artists. He argues that people in many professions, including sports, politics and business, are extremely creative. He thinks that more people in artistic professions have mental illness because those professions are more accepting of mental illness. As a result, Ludwig speculates, people with mental illness are naturally drawn to artistic professions.
    This kind of thought rankles me. In my opinion, none of those professions are artistic in nature. Now maybe some of the people involved are artistic in some form but it takes a different kind of mind set to be in politics and sports. Artists are generally a little more eccentric and see "outside the box" more so than other more "stable" people.

    And I serious doubt that people with mental ilness gravitate towards artistic professions because those professions are "more accepting of mental illness". How trite. I'm not saying that all artists have a mental illness but I do believe that a lot of people with a mental illness are artistic. Why? That I don't know. Maybe our brains just work differently.

    It took me the longest time to really want to get better simply because I was afraid I would change. I like the manic, frantic bouts of expression. I was so afraid that I wouldn't be the same person anymore. I have seen a change in my ability to express myself since I started medication. I don't like it one bit.

  5. Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    A bit about myself.

    My name is Alejandra, but you can call me Alexandra. My story started a couple years ago when I started to realize that the world was going upside down for me? Some people called me crazy, some remained my friends, some have left, some are still in the ride with me
    A couple years ago, let's say, 5 years I married a wonderful Canadian guy,his name is Paul. We lived apart for 2 years and together for 2 1/2, which caused a big disaster because naturally what happened is that he cheated on me. I used to live happily until then, which broke my soul(;literally) in two.

    Right now, I'm living with him I may be a fool, but that's just me. I moved to Canada just 6 months ago believing in the saying "true love" I left everything behind, career, friends, money, job and whatever else I had.

    I don't want to remember now, but it happened to me like 10 months ago when I went totally out of control, I used to have my up and downs, but someday in hospital I had a REAL BAD day, I went out of control. I wanted to poison myself with a controlled medical substance. I finished in hospital, I didn't tell a lot of people because I felt it was not right to scare them away, wrong., I just finished losing more people, because I stopped my medication like 3 months ago. I had another crisis where I almost suicide myself with a knife, big mistake. After all this, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    I know a lot of people don't understand this, a lot of you will. I'm a composer, I like to draw and write stories, even I told to one of my friends my stories would come true if I kept writing, wrong again, they just started to run away from me. I still make my music until now, I write a journal, not a dream one, but a real journal, I'm attending college and making exams in Canada to can achieve my medical degree back, someday I will be doctor here.

    If you are a bipolar you may understand me, and if you are a doctor like me, you will get the idea.
    Hope to talk to someone soon, btw now I'm under control^^

  6. #6

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    You say at one point "I stopped my medication like 3 months ago"... did you mean prior to that hospitalization? or do you mean currently? I'm curious because you also say "now I'm under control"...

  7. Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    Quote Originally Posted by David Baxter
    You say at one point "I stopped my medication like 3 months ago"... did you mean prior to that hospitalization? or do you mean currently? I'm curious because you also say "now I'm under control"...
    yeah right now I'm under control, taking my medications and I felt felt in an excellent mood since then, no more swings. Yeah I stopped the medications BEFORE the hospitalization. But now I'm doing great.

  8. #8

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    Ah. Okay. Thanks... and I'm glad to hear it.

  9. #9

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    I am concerned about my very creative and bright 18 year old daughter who recently left for college. I have some mental illness history in my family, a schizophrenic brother and a sister with a social anxiety problem (two out of ten siblings) and a husband with a high but manageable anxiety level. When he was a child, and a few times in adulthood, he has had seizures as a result of stress coupled with a trigger, such as blood or needles. Now I cringe every time my daughter seems to exhibit abnormal behavior. The problems seem to come and go. One day I'm ready to take her in to a psychiatrist and the next she's perfectly fine and on a regular schedule. I don't know if I'm overreacting when she complains to me or not. I would summarize her problems as "compulsive creativity", which is what drew me to this thread.

    She is having trouble falling asleep. She feels an almost compulsive need to do things late at night in her dorm room such as read, write, exercise. Then she can't get up in the morning and is always late for class. She has on one or two occasions not been able to get up for her 2:00 pm class! She started exhibiting this behavior during her freshman year in high school, staying up all night sometimes working on some busy work project for one of her honors classes because it had to be perfect. She did this maybe once or twice a month that whole year. The next year she was tired a lot and couldn't pull those all nighters to save her life.

    She is very bright and creative. She has a hard time just doing a project and being done with it, because she feels it has to be unique and creative. She rarely writes poetry or anything for fun anymore because she gets writer's block so bad because she is never satisfied with her work. She says she doesn't feel energetic or manic at night, just compelled to do things. Does this sound more like anxiety or OCD? She has trouble with writing very simple essays or subjects that she has no interest in. She wants to turn everything into a major creative project. The last two years or so, every month when her period starts, she can't get out of bed for 2-3 days due to fatigue, nausea and headaches. So hormones may be playing a factor. We've had her checked out by a neurologist and she has headache medicine now. I had myself convinced at one point two years ago that she had chronic fatique syndrome, then she seemed to start getting better.

    In other words, I know it is common for teenagers to need a lot of sleep. If she absolutely has to get up for something, especially something she likes, she can do it. She is not a troubled kid, we have a strong stable family. She is much more creative than anyone on my side of the family. My husband is creative, too, although he is an engineer. I am a lawyer. Our daughter, needless to say is very analytical, maybe overly so. If I take her in for a psychiatric evaluation, I won't have time until spring break or next summer. Maybe you can help me deal with this in the meantime. She is giving me an anxiety problem! Thanks for this wonderful forum and for any help you can offer.

  10. #10

    Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?

    Schizophrenia is an inherited vulnerability but very often families of schizophrenics do not show schizophrenia but rather tendencies toward an anxiety disorder or a mood disorder -- it sound like your daughter may have an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive tendencies but this certainly doesn't indicate that she will develope schizophrenia. In fact, if she has not already shown signs of the unique thought patterns or other symptoms of ecentric behavior or schizophrenia by now, chances are she won't. While the most common age range for developing schizophrenian is probably in that 18-25 year bracket, almost always there will be evidence of oddities or eccenticities in thinking and behavior for quite some time before that.

    The other point I would make is that while there may be a link between creativity and mood disorders it is certainly not a 1-to-1 relationship: there are many creative people who do NOT suffer from any form of "mental illness".

    What you might do is encourage her to talk to one of the counsellors or doctors on campus about how to manage stress and "perfectionism" more effectively -- that may be something she can relate to that would be helpful without seeming to be critical or alarmist.

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