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David Baxter

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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?

Why?
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.
 

MMJ

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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.
 

David Baxter

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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.
 

Ash

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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.
 

SteelAngel

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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^^
 

David Baxter

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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"...
 

SteelAngel

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David Baxter said:
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.
 

jacie

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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.
 

David Baxter

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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.
 

jacie

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Thanks, Dr. Baxter. Can you elaborate a little on the unique thought patterns or eccentric tendencies? My brother seemed so perfectly normal when he left for college, we were totally shocked by his illness. His identical twin is doing very well, with no symptoms of the disease, and they just turned 30. The schizophrenic twin claims that he heard voices in his head since he was a young child, but I'm not sure if that is true or just another delusion. The twins were wonderful kids, everyone loved them and they excelled at everything: sports, school, etc. The schizophrenic brother was also very lonely and homesick when he went away to college, and my daughter is now very homesick and I admit it scares me. Also, how important are her sleep patterns in considering the possibility of bipolar disorder?

I know I probably worry too much, but I also have a 12 year old son whom we adopted when he was two, who has a bipolar birthmother and possibly a schizophrenic father. This was before we found out about my brother. He has had his share of problems over the years, epilepsy, ADHD, learning disabilities. And you may recall you answered another recent post for me about my daughter's friend who just tried to kill herself Monday. Somedays I feel like I am surrounded by crazy people, and I appreciate this opportunity to vent. I've been dying to ask these questions for a while now. It's hard to talk to friends about this stuff because most people don't have a clue. Thank you for your time.
 

David Baxter

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jacie said:
Thanks, Dr. Baxter. Can you elaborate a little on the unique thought patterns or eccentric tendencies?
That depends on the status and severity of the illness, and to an extent the type (schizophrenia in some ways resembles more a family of similar suyndromes than a single illness): In the acute state, there is an obvious thought disorder present -- tangential thinking, jumps from one thing to the next with no apparent logic or based on the sound of the words or on some idiosyncratic associations, so that the process or conversation is very difficult for anyone else to make sense of. When the illness is in remission, however, many patients still show a characteristic (though much slower) "flight of ideas" and a rather childlioke worldview. It's hard to describe but unmistakable once you've had experience with it...

My brother seemed so perfectly normal when he left for college, we were totally shocked by his illness. His identical twin is doing very well, with no symptoms of the disease, and they just turned 30. The schizophrenic twin claims that he heard voices in his head since he was a young child, but I'm not sure if that is true or just another delusion. The twins were wonderful kids, everyone loved them and they excelled at everything: sports, school, etc. The schizophrenic brother was also very lonely and homesick when he went away to college, and my daughter is now very homesick and I admit it scares me. Also, how important are her sleep patterns in considering the possibility of bipolar disorder?
Bear in mind that many college students are homeseick their first time away from home, and many people, students included, suffer from insomnia -- neither factor is directly related to schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Furthermore, having a close biological relative with schizophrenia does statistically increase the risk for mood disorders, anxiety disorders, etc., but not necessarily for schizophrenia itself -- as you have seen, even in identical twins it is quite possible for one twin to develop the disorder and the other to be perfectly normal. I think the best guess is that it is one of those things that requires a genetic or biological predisposition PLUS the "right" set of environmental circumstances to develop.

I know I probably worry too much, but I also have a 12 year old son whom we adopted when he was two, who has a bipolar birthmother and possibly a schizophrenic father. This was before we found out about my brother. He has had his share of problems over the years, epilepsy, ADHD, learning disabilities. And you may recall you answered another recent post for me about my daughter's friend who just tried to kill herself Monday. Somedays I feel like I am surrounded by crazy people, and I appreciate this opportunity to vent. I've been dying to ask these questions for a while now. It's hard to talk to friends about this stuff because most people don't have a clue. Thank you for your time.
You certainly have had more than your share of things to worry about... and I am very pleased that you find this forum helpful in venting and asking questions...

...but yes, you probably do worry more than is necessary :eek:)
 

stargazer

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This is also an interesting thread. I've always been a creative person myself--or at least geared toward creative projects. It's sort of in my upbringing, because musical talent was noticed in me at an early age, and I was encouraged to begin composing music when I was only seven years old. The piano was put into my bedroom, along with a typewriter, and I pretty much took off from there. I'd always had mood swings, but people around me in those days weren't in tune with "bipolar," and only recently did I discover that this was a part of me that needed to be addressed.

Earlier on, I felt quite embarrassed that I had had certain traumatic experiences around bipolar, but now I am embracing these as a part of who I am. However, I hope to avoid any kind of dramatization linking creativity to mental illness, a sort of romantic notion that all great artists are in some sense insane, and that therefore if one is insane, one must be some kind of great artist.

I think that certain creative people sort of "use" their mental illnesses as a device to glamorize their personas and kind of get attention for it. I myself have done that in the past, and I don't want to do it anymore, because I think it works against the attitude I need to maintain in order to continue to accept treatment.

If I start to think that my mental illness is in some sense essential to my creativity, then I get myself into trouble. So that's the outlook that I'm presently trying to avoid.
 

stargazer

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This is also an interesting thread. I've always been a creative person myself--or at least geared toward creative projects. It's sort of in my upbringing, because musical talent was noticed in me at an early age, and I was encouraged to begin composing music when I was only seven years old. The piano was put into my bedroom, along with a typewriter, and I pretty much took off from there. I'd always had mood swings, but people around me in those days weren't in tune with "bipolar," and only recently did I discover that this was a part of me that needed to be addressed.

Earlier on, I felt quite embarrassed that I had had certain traumatic experiences around bipolar, but now I am embracing these as a part of who I am. However, I hope to avoid any kind of dramatization linking creativity to mental illness, a sort of romantic notion that all great artists are in some sense insane, and that therefore if one is insane, one must be some kind of great artist.

I think that certain creative people sort of "use" their mental illnesses as a device to glamorize their personas and kind of get attention for it. I myself have done that in the past, and I don't want to do it anymore, because I think it works against the attitude I need to maintain in order to continue to accept treatment.

If I start to think that my mental illness is in some sense essential to my creativity, then I get myself into trouble. So that's the outlook that I'm presently trying to avoid.
 

LadyDollz

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The genetic connection

portion of article from
Meadows Foundation grant supports bipolar disorder research

' ... Harvard-trained Dr. Michael Escamilla, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the new center, has found general locations of two genes that carry bipolar disorder. Both genes are on chromosome 18. ..."

"Genes are only part of the picture of what causes bipolar disorder, but they are highly significant. Identifying the genes involved also will allow us to better study environmental risk factors that contribute to this illness. The same gene 'mutation' may cause bipolar disorder in one person and produce a creative genius in another.

The entire article can be found at:
http://www.uthscsa.edu/opa/issues/new34-46/meadows.html


Many blessings
Lady Dollz
 

LadyDollz

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The genetic connection

portion of article from
Meadows Foundation grant supports bipolar disorder research

' ... Harvard-trained Dr. Michael Escamilla, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the new center, has found general locations of two genes that carry bipolar disorder. Both genes are on chromosome 18. ..."

"Genes are only part of the picture of what causes bipolar disorder, but they are highly significant. Identifying the genes involved also will allow us to better study environmental risk factors that contribute to this illness. The same gene 'mutation' may cause bipolar disorder in one person and produce a creative genius in another.

The entire article can be found at:
http://www.uthscsa.edu/opa/issues/new34-46/meadows.html


Many blessings
Lady Dollz
 

stargazer

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In regards to my earlier comment, I now think there might be a hint of truth on both sides of the equation. It may be true that certain creative people romanticize or glamorize their mental illness as some kind of necessary adjunct to their artistic personae, but on the other hand I am noticing more and more that as I calm down and begin to eat and sleep regularly, I do not seem to have the kinds of interesting creative ideas that I associate with feeling "up" or "manic."

Whenever I do begin to write music again, I quickly get into hyperspace. Part of this is a natural reaction of excitement over what I'm writing. But I take it too far. I start to imagine the audiences and their applause, and the idea of all that adulation distracts me from simply doing the work required to finish composing the piece.

I wish I could find a better balance, but I just don't seem to be doing so. I've resigned to set this period of my life aside for quiet listening to the ideas of others, because when I begin to generate my own ideas, I stop listening. Perhaps it's just my mood today, but it seems there is no point of balance, and no in between. I find myself to be unusually depressed these days.

Hopefully, when I have a better job--which may be soon--I can absorb myself in being of service to others on the job site, and I will not be so depressed. But it seems I haven't written anything in months, and I find myself wanting to sleep all the time. I'm not sure what to make of it.
 

stargazer

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In regards to my earlier comment, I now think there might be a hint of truth on both sides of the equation. It may be true that certain creative people romanticize or glamorize their mental illness as some kind of necessary adjunct to their artistic personae, but on the other hand I am noticing more and more that as I calm down and begin to eat and sleep regularly, I do not seem to have the kinds of interesting creative ideas that I associate with feeling "up" or "manic."

Whenever I do begin to write music again, I quickly get into hyperspace. Part of this is a natural reaction of excitement over what I'm writing. But I take it too far. I start to imagine the audiences and their applause, and the idea of all that adulation distracts me from simply doing the work required to finish composing the piece.

I wish I could find a better balance, but I just don't seem to be doing so. I've resigned to set this period of my life aside for quiet listening to the ideas of others, because when I begin to generate my own ideas, I stop listening. Perhaps it's just my mood today, but it seems there is no point of balance, and no in between. I find myself to be unusually depressed these days.

Hopefully, when I have a better job--which may be soon--I can absorb myself in being of service to others on the job site, and I will not be so depressed. But it seems I haven't written anything in months, and I find myself wanting to sleep all the time. I'm not sure what to make of it.
 

Lost

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< tangential thinking, jumps from one thing to the next with no apparent logic or based on the sound of the words or on some idiosyncratic associations, so that the process or conversation is very difficult for anyone else to make sense of.>

That scares me. I do that very often, when my thoughts are racing, or they are triggered by minor things within a conversation, and other people are left totally bewildered. Maybe I'm schizophrenic now too...!
 

Lost

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< tangential thinking, jumps from one thing to the next with no apparent logic or based on the sound of the words or on some idiosyncratic associations, so that the process or conversation is very difficult for anyone else to make sense of.>

That scares me. I do that very often, when my thoughts are racing, or they are triggered by minor things within a conversation, and other people are left totally bewildered. Maybe I'm schizophrenic now too...!
 

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