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Does Creativity Come With A Price? New Insight On Creatives And Mental Illness

A new study says creative types—writers, in particular—are more likely to suffer from certain kinds of mental illness. The lead researcher discusses the reasons for the link and why we may want to rethink assumptions about sickness and treatment.

For generations, there’s been a cultural assumption that creative people are more mentally unstable than everybody else. In his 1936 essay, The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald detailed his own personal battles with depression and alcoholism. Just four years prior, German psychiatrist Wilhelm Lang-Eichbaum examined 800 "geniuses," and found that they showed higher tendencies toward "nervous tensions" than the general population.

In 2005, a study of 30 writers from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop were compared with 30 people of similar IQ and comparable educational advancement. The writers—and their immediate relatives—had a higher rate of mood disorders than the controls. And, for added measure, let’s throw in the fact that of America’s 11 Nobel laureates in literature, four of them were "clearly alcoholics" (Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway), and one of them (Steinbeck) "probably was," according to Donald W. Goodwin, MD, who wrote a book on the subject.

This fall, the first statistically significant study linking creativity and mental illness was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. "Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study," examined 1.2 million Swedish patients from the country’s national registry and compared this sample against the entire Swedish population.

Here’s what they found:

Overall, creative professionals were about 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. The study found this to be true for artists (practitioners of everything from photography to choreography) and scientists (professors and researchers). The most startling results, however, related to authors. Writers were a whopping 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead researcher, says that authors had a "statistically significant increase" in anxiety disorders—38% to be exact. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide also increased among writers.

So what, exactly, is going on here? And why the particular increase in bipolar? Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead author, explains that first you have to address the tricky problem of defining creativity. He does so by examining three aspects: personality (traits like curiosity that are associated with creativity), process (what actually happens in the brain during a creative act), and product. In short, he says that creativity is the production of something new and meaningful. Sure, these terms are subjective. But research has shown that the greater the creative person’s output, the more likely she is to hit on something innovative or revolutionary.

"When you’re manic, you get more things done, but you also get more and wider ideas. And the more ideas you have, the more creative you are," says Kyaga. It’s certainly possible for a manic person to create an excess of crappy art. But Kyaga’s team has also seen a link between bipolar disorder and ambition. If you’re truly ambitious, then you’re actively trying to create new and meaningful work. In other words, your art is more than a by-product of your inability to sit still.

But this doesn’t explain why the rates of bipolar disorder are so much higher for authors. Kyaga’s study discovered that authors are really overrun with psychological illness—from anxiety disorders to alcoholism. In fact, this was the opposite of what Kyaga found among other creative professionals. Visual artists, dancers, directors, and scientists suffered from these disorders at significantly lower rates than the general population. Kyaga theorizes that writers are particularly plagued by environmental factors. "It takes a long time before you get something published and a long time to get feedback," he says. "That waiting isn’t present to the same extent in other occupations."

(As an author, I will attest to the truth of Kyaga’s observation about the agony of waiting, but I’m not sure the struggling painters, dancers, or, for that matter, the scientists who work for years without a breakthrough, fare any better.)

In any case, the important question raised by the Swedish study relates to treatment. Can this new diagnosis change the way that doctors help their patients? Kyaga says absolutely. "Patients cannot be reduced to a diagnosis, and these results point to that."

He argues against the tendency to look at patients as either sick or well, because even "sickness" has its upsides. "The underlying traits [of these illnesses] might confer advantages, e.g. creativity," he says. And because of this, Kyaga says that doctors need to think twice before administering standard drug treatments. Drugs can stabilize but in so doing, they can alter a creative person’s personality, process, and product. On the flip side, Kyaga says that some studies have shown an increase in creative output among patients who are taking lithium, a common treatment for bipolar disorder. He points to an old one (1979) in the British Journal of Psychiatry, which examined the effects of Lithium treatment on 24 manic-depressive artists. Half of the sample reported an increase in artistic productivity.

"Treatments need to be based on sound clinical trails," says Kyaga. "And this calls for using large databases of information." Say, 1.2 million Swedes.

[Image: Flickr users Ellen K, Adam Arroyo, and Sarah Sitkin]

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  • aftalonzo

    Obviously you're a writer, but I have to say this article is extremely well-written. You presented the results in a way that is easy to understand even if you don't have experience reading research studies, contextualized the results in a way that shows how the findings can be useful, and maintained a personal voice.

  • popthart10

    I'm no professional, but I am an artist myself who suffers from anxiety and depression. I've always thought that perhaps it is not that artists struggle with mood disorders, but rather people with mood disorders become artists. We need to express our struggles, and art is the avenue we use to do that. Also (to those who have seen the notebook) remember the scene when Allie said, "Most of the time I have all these thoughts bouncin' around in my head... but with a brush in my hand, the world just gets kinda quiet.". Well the same is true for myself and I figure many other artists. Our art calms our thoughts and helps us to think things through.

  • Nicholas Leo

    what do you mean your mind has refracted? Im confused but curious.

    As a highly creative individual - I think bipolar is found somewhere in the corpus collosum? did i say that right? anyways the part of the brain that wires the two hemispheres together.

    I theorize & I could be far off or totally wrong - because I have been in the past many a times. But I believe that bipolar may be the switching of consciousness from extremes of the both hemispheres.

    I believe one brain is there for input probably the logical brain & then the right hemisphere is there to detract truth from untruth. Or right from wrong. Also it probably deduces distances - size. One brain focus' on the object and then the other deduces or filters in the shape of everything around it. I believe Bipolar people have unconsciously created a state of paradoxical questioning. Asking one very concrete thought by one hemisphere & then following up with an abstract rationalization of if that is correct or not.-nick

  • mrguesswho

    Your Creative, and the bipolar is realitively modern concept.
    Your mind has refracted, and is rewired as a out come, it's self tempory adjustments in process, won't last forever, all normalize soon, don't worry dosn't last for ever, you'll notice your in more control , awareness is the realization of change....good luck Paul, all the best.
    I joke around some times but, i'm been more serouse here.

  • mrguesswho

    I realy enjoyed reading this whole page,your all crackers....

    off your rockers...hate to sound bitchy, but,.. that lady that poor writer that give up and writes on a pair string schedual,to me,....she give up,simple as that, she proberly got pregnant in a one night stand feeling low and needed to step of the linear plat form, she simply wants to be a writer, how can you be who you arn't serouse writer's write thats it to them it's like cooking dinner and brushing ones teeth, you live what you are fuck the money to leave that film plot process of self creation and entertainment for free, happy campers,the money, fame,it's just a bonus with hassle,where was i,.... yea so gee, now shes got a baby to feed simple as that,she felt low and jumped into bed with somebody , she wanted out,now me, on the other hand, am a proper writer, am happy and want nothing, nothing, nothing at all,not even to get published, i'm a genuise wonderfull me... am on dole, like a true poetic trubadour, dying in  Act UB40, i know 43yrs to be precised anyway, where was i...O'yes.. and i can't beleave it when people say your not a writer've had nothing published, can you belive that?..!!
    is everybody going mad..!!
    Am doing more fucking writing than some, fuck witt, that's shit, thats got no fucking brains, big deal, they can spell, so can a fuckin typest, i secretly think theres a hell of a lot of shit out there, not much true creativity on display, but in my world it's harsh but lush especialy in my red curtain poetical operatical, to be honest Ladies and Gentlemen, am a Poet not a writer, writers write story's, Poets live them, a fairytale dream,get yourself an ice scream i'll be back..!!


  • Hayley Lau

    to me, the difference in mental health between writers and other
    creatives is the idea of using the whole brain and body. i believe holistic, embodied
    creativity is necessary for a highly creative person to be fulfilled in life.

    writers can get really 'in their heads'. it's much easier
    for a writer to get sucked into endless thoughts and fantasies which
    take them so far into their imaginations that reality doesn't make sense
    anymore, and disappoints them in comparison with their ideas. in this way, their perception of reality becomes distorted, and this contributes to unpleasant symptoms.

    i'm a highly
    creative person and i spent years leaning so far into my writing
    that i didn't engage in any other mediums. during this time, i felt out
    of touch, more prone to depression and hopelessness.

    it wasn't until i started to incorporate other ways of expression into my regular life that i felt more whole, more empowered, and more in tune with life. first i began writing poetry instead of simply prose. then i started to make abstract, emotional art. then i introduced a regular practice of free-form dance. now i make my living making clothes. i make time for all of these within any given week, not because i'm dedicated to 'being creative', but because i care for my own wellbeing. holistic creativity keeps me sane, alert, inspired, and thrilled by my fascinations. i still write every day, but i see it more as a working part of the whole, rather than the focus of my creative endeavours.

  • MichaelDeRosa

    Absolutely fascinating!  Totally concur.  We need to see the mentally ill as people first!  

  • Guest

    I am a successful executive.  When my Dr. diagnosed me with anxiety, mild depression and adult ADHD I questioned why in my 50's would this just be showing up and how can I be so successful.  He shed light on the fact that many successful people have these illnesses.  I still don't share it with my board for fear they might not see it quite that way.  They do know what I am capable of and are supportive so we will just keep it that way.

  • Jan Ulery Bunten

    The suggestion that there is something inherent about writing that would "cause" bipolar is looking at the situation backward. It would seem to make more sense to me that there is something about having bipolar disorder that makes those who have it more likely to feel the need (and have the creativity) to write. It's a complex interplay of genetics and environment that causes bipolar disorder but it would seem that people are born with the tendency to have it, as evidenced by its recurrence in families. Being an author, on the other hand, wouldn't seem to be something you're born with. Kay Redfield Jamison has done a lot of research on this idea.  I recommend her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.

  • Bojan Landekic

    The statement "Drugs can stabilize but in so doing, they can alter a creative person’s personality, process, and product" really rings true with me.  I was mis-diagnosed in a third-world country and forced to take 5 pills three times a day for two months.  Before this event I was writing music on a daily basis for an hour or two per day.  Afterwards I didn't even want to start the music program.  I've lost all creative tendencies it seems.  I now have to force myself to do anything creative.

  • Mandi

    Wait. I'm confused.

    "Overall, creative professionals were about 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. The study found this to be true for artists (practitioners of everything from photography to choreography) and scientists (professors and researchers)."

    "Kyaga’s study discovered that authors are really overrun with psychological illness--from anxiety disorders to alcoholism. In fact, this was the opposite of what Kyaga found among other creative professionals. Visual artists, dancers, directors, and scientists suffered from these disorders at significantly lower rates than the general population."Are you saying that creative professionals are 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population, but less likely to suffer from anxiety and alcoholism? This seems like a disconnect.

  • Jacob Dearing

    Humans get high - the stark shades from high and low ~ low and high provide a perspective akin to cat fixed on a pounce target.

    Back and forth and you gain depth on issues, perspectives on ideas.
    Up and down you grasp more about your focus.

    Mania is not a tool in itself for perspective, no just the elevation.
    Depression is not a tool in itself for perspective, just the elevation.

  • Jennifer Broderick

    I am a 43 year old female & visual artist who was diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, strong Borderline Personality tendencies and Tourette Syndrome (a tic disorder) when I was 35 years old. Taking Lithium; a mood stabilizer; Lamictal; an anticonvulsant drug  used to treat long term depression and  Ritalin, all saved my life.

    I have created my best artwork, started a successful business and experience almost no feelings of hopelessness and the many other symptoms that are associated with my disorders because of my these drugs.

    Over the years I have spoken (shared my story) publicly for The National Alliance on Mental Illness. I learned over the years that my audience and others with mental illness each have a unique story to tell. When people have a headache they take an aspirin and most likely the headache (most likely) disappears. Mental illness is far from cut and dry. A person with my diagnosis may not respond well on the same drugs as me. Finding the right drug and dosage is half the battle.

    My recipe for taming my highly creative mind and keeping myself from a panic attack or god forbid another psychotic break? Med compliance, regular visits to my psychiatrist (one who diagnoses and writes scripts) and regular trips to my psychologist where I receive cognitive therapy. I believe for me that it's more important to treat my symptoms than to attach a name to them.

    We are living in a time where articles like Jennifer's help to break the stigma of mental illness. The more we talk about it, the more people will have the courage to help out a friend or a loved one. Remember, most people with mental illness have no insight and you just might save someone's  life by confronting them with love and understanding. Creative or not,  insurmountable pain exists in all who have mental illness.

  • Elaine

    The last sentance:  Creative or not, insurmountable pain exists in all who have mental illness.

    Not only the person, him or herself, feels this insurmountable pain, but the people who love the person.  Who knows to what degree each is feeling.....And, Jennifer, I agree that it is so-o-o-o- important for us to talk about it in order that the person with the illness, and the general public, and the people close to this misunderstood subject accept and support all effort to understand the complications of this illness.  Elaine

  • Shaun

    Creatives, scientists, etc. (those groups mentioned here) are smarter than the average person. The saying "ignorance is bliss" exists for a reason. It's no surprise that the brighter folks are more prone to mood disorders.

  • Amy461

    Many years ago I read a book called "Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction" by Linda S. Leonard.  Seems creative types may be more likely to have problems with addiction than the general population.
    No fair.

  • Paul

    I'm bipolar. I'm a creative working for a marketing agency. I wonder if I ended up bipolar because I'm a creative, or whether I ended up being creative because I'm bipolar... ?