Posted by: Admin | October 20, 2012

Some say “mad”, Some say “creative” – the link between creativity and mental health

As a writer and photographer it seems that I have little chance of being what the world calls “normal”.

Swedish researchers report that writers have a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse and are almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers are also more likely to have bipolar disorder. That’s me screwed then, really, isn’t it?

Now, I’m with Beth Murphy, Head of Information at UK mental health charity, MIND
when she says: “It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.” But I applaud the researchers who are suggesting that treatment for mental health issues should take into account that some aspects of these disorders are actually desirable to the “sufferer” and, in terms of their creative output, society at large.

(Oh, to be a) Creative Genius

History is littered with so-called “creative geniuses” who have well-documented mental health issues. Painter, Salvador Dali, Mathematician, John Nash (affectingly portrayed in the film Beautiful Mind), writer, Ernest Hemmingway, Composer, Robert Schumann, Comedian, Tony Hancock – these “troubled geniuses” span the creative spectrum, yet all suffered what is perceived to be mental “illness”, some paying the ultimate price with their lives ending in suicide.

Indeed, studies have shown that there are differences in the brains of creative people that are similar in those suffering from schizophrenia, specifically regarding the brain’s dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought. It is believed that those with fewer of these receptors in the thalmus are subject to a “barrage” of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark, enabling creative people to see connections that others miss.

UK psychologist, Mark Millard describes it thus: “Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror”

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing desirable about depression, and believe me, I do know what I’m talking about here. And I think it is important to differentiate between a “racing brain” and the frightening fractures in reality experienced by someone suffering from schizophrenia. But what if depression could be viewed simply as the brain’s downtime and could be managed more positively?

The thing about me…

Perhaps I should explain a little of my personal experience. My doctor says I have “a wobbly baseline”, by which she means that I’m borderline bi-polar. She doesn’t know (mainly because she’s never asked) how often or how rapidly I cycle between depression and euphoria, but then I choose not to take medication (although I have done so when I’ve become stuck in a black hole, and would do again in the same circumstances). Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I manage myself quite well and have been on a relatively even keel for a while.

But, while “an even keel” makes life in general easier, (and certainly makes me easier to live with!) it can be creativity’s Grim Reaper. Lead researcher, Dr Simon Kyaga, believes that the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity. That is why I welcome the early signs of mania (as I now know it to be) with open arms – as soon as I feel that familiar surge of mental energy I know I am about to make sense of all the thoughts that have been muddling around in my head and create something I can be proud of.

The trick, for me, is to keep myself in check so that it doesn’t escalate into a full blown manic episode – working 20 hours a day, forgetting to eat, sleep or leave the house – as that way lies an inevitable crash into depression and inertia. For those with bi-polar (what used to be called “manic depression”) the manic episodes can be more distressing than the low moods. For me, self-management generally works, though I would stress that I am merely on the borderline of the bi-polar spectrum – medication is a life-saver for many. That said, it has taken me fifty years to fully understand the way my brain works and what I have to do to keep it healthy!

What do YOU think?

If you are “creative” and suffer from depression, bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, I would be interested to hear your views. Given the choice, would you choose to be condition-free, or do you feel it is part and parcel of who you are?

To find out more about the latest research, these BBC News articles are a good starting point:



  1. creativity and “madness” are oft linked, with obvious ones such as Van Gogh, but there are many with familial traits – James Joyce and Albert Einstein spring to mind, there are also manifestations of depression such as alcoholism which were major influences in artists such as Jackson Pollock. The trick I feel is to have your creativity acknowledged whilst still alive, a lesson lost on some of these poor souls.

    • Hi Michael. I guess that the spectre of “madness” masks the perception of genius

  2. Just because the odds appear to be higher for creative types doesn’t mean that non-creative types don’t suffer from these problems. Correlation does not imply causality so I’d be interested in seeing the data.

    • Fair point, Helen – hopefully the data can be found via the links in the blog post. x

  3. our youngest daughter is fully bi-polar…and has been medicated since age 4 (so that home is no longer a chaotic war zone but life is much more manageable). She has an awesome pediatric psychiatrist who agrees with us to medicate just to the point of functionality so as not to loose this young one’s AMAZING CREATIVITY when on the manic side of life…as you said, the crux is to find a balance point and not to swing too far off the “deep end” (on either side).

  4. oops! meant to say “so as not to LOSE this young one’s amazing creativity” … we definitely WANT to “loose” that creativity 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Jill. As a parent, it is a tricky path to negotiate, isn’t it? Thank goodness you have the support of a good, like-minded physician!

  5. i am diagnosed with hypo manic bipolar II and i have every intention of being free of the negative impact it can impose upon me.
    i emphatically recognise that it is during manic phases that i produce the greatest quality of poetry, altho i have also recently discovered that i can write well without it too.
    i refuse to say that i suffer… for each phase brings greater revelation and insight into my mentality, and whilst the mania is breathtaking in its beauty, it is also great when i can slow down and eat and sleep again… and think before i speak 😛
    i believe that creativity is not sparked by so called mental illness… but that a mind can shine brightly amidst the storm

  6. Thank you, redefineyourmind. I also believe that creativity is not “sparked” by so-called mental illness, but I do believe that many (if not most) creative people are more prone to these mood altering states.
    I think it’s wonderful that you are using each episode to learn more about yourself and I hope that, with time, they will become manageable without extinguishing that creative spark!
    I took a look at your site, by the way. Thought-provoking content – I’ve clicked “follow”. All best, Jo

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