Creativity and Depression: Is There a Link?
The mad genius, the tormented artist, the melancholy poet. History is filled with writers, poets, artists, musicians, composers, and other creative people who wrestled with mood disorders. A list of just a few of them would include Dickinson, Poe, Emerson, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Melville, Tolstoy, O'Keefe, Gaugin, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. But is this portrayal just a stereotype, or is there really a link between creativity and depression?
Prevalence of Mood Disorders in Creative People
This question haunted Arnold M. Ludwig, a researcher at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. He embarked on a 10-year study of 1,004 men and women who were prominent in a variety of professions, including art, music, science, business, politics, and sports. Ludwig found that between 59% and 77% of the artists, writers, and musicians suffered mental illness (particularly mood disorders) compared to just 18% to 29% in the less artistic professionals.
Most studies on this subject have consistently shown higher rates of mood disorders in creative people, differing only in the magnitude of the results. Are creative people destined to experience depression or bipolar disorder ? Or does having a mental illness make people more creative?
Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, addresses these questions in her book, Touched with Fire, and notes that most creative people do not suffer from recurring mood swings.
In fact, the majority of people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder do not have extraordinary imaginations. "To assume that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the mad genius," she writes.
Why is it, then, that such a high percentage of creative people suffer from depression and bipolar disorder? Do these diseases enhance creativity in certain people or do characteristics of the creative mind render one more vulnerable to these diseases? The answers to these questions are uncertain, but a number of theories have been proposed.
Mania and the Creative Process
The manic phase of bipolar disorder is characterized by emotions and behaviors that parallel the creative process. These include:
- Original thinking
- Heightened sensitivity
- Increased drive and productivity
- Increased fluency, fluidity, and frequency of thoughts
- Tendency to use rhymes and alliteration
- Sharp focus
- Ability to function on limited sleep
- Increased quality and quantity of word usage
- Extreme anxiety
In certain people with bipolar disorder, these manic characteristics will enhance creativity. In contrast, the depressive phase of bipolar disorder is characterized by introspection, rumination, lack of interest in one's surroundings, and intense psychological pain—all of which can add depth and meaning to creative work. This may partially explain the profound creativity seen in many people with bipolar disorder.
The Social Challenges of Being Creative
One theory suggests that many creatively gifted individuals may suffer from depression as a result of being in environments that don't support their creativity. In the The Woman's Book of Creativity, C. Diane Ealy, PhD, writes, "Many studies have shown us that a young girl's ideas are frequently discounted by her peers and teachers. In response, she stifles her creativity.” Other experts agree that suppressed and misunderstood creativity can lead to severe neurotic and psychotic behavior, addictions, unhealthy relationships, concealment of abilities, hopelessness, and depression.
Gifted and talented people are often divergent thinkers who have unusual, original, and creative perception and elaborate fantasies. They may disagree with authority, invest in their own interests, and express unpopular views. This can present social challenges, particularly for girls and women, as a result of a cultural expectation to conform.
Gifted and talented people generally receive little acceptance for their unique selves, and may have poor self-esteem and difficulty trusting people. This situation can lead to feelings of isolation and frequent bouts of depression.
Gifted and talented adults are driven to express their inner creativity but may be hindered by self-criticism, self-doubt, and feelings of inferiority, says Mary Rocamora, who heads a school in Los Angeles for gifted and talented adults. When this happens, frustration can turn into hopelessness and depression.
Finally, creative individuals, such as writers and artists, often spend long hours working in solitude. When faced with various stressors, they may not have as much social support as those who work among other people. This may result in increased stress, feelings of isolation, and depression. For this reason, it's helpful for creative people to develop outside interests that involve socializing, especially if their work is solitary.
Treatment Concerns for Creative People
According to Jamison, creative people with mood disorders are often reluctant to comply with drug therapies. These treatments may hinder their creativity by dampening mental processes, perception, and range of emotion. While it is still unclear if a true link between creativity and depression exists, creative people with mental illness require treatments that alleviate their symptoms and prevent serious complications, but preserve their ability to perceive vital human emotions.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Ealy, D. The Woman's Book of Creativity . Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan, 1996.
Jamison, KR. Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament . New York, NY: Maxwell Macmillan International; 1993.
Last reviewed June 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
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