The link between mental health issues and creativity has been a hotly contested topic for some time. It’s easy to see why when ‘tortured artists’ such as Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allen Poe produced such revered work amid mental turmoil. So it doesn’t take long to hypothesise that perhaps there’s more than coincidence at play.Creativity as a concept is abstract and subjective, making it difficult for academics to meaningfully track and measure. Mental health is also incredibly broad. Do you choose to study depression? A type of anxiety? Affective disorders?
When I started looking into this, I found the study of creativity on its own is incredibly vast – that’s before you even introduce something as difficult to measure as someone’s mental health.
Another problem facing academics choosing to study this area is where to begin in framing the study. Do you source a group of people coping with mental illness and assess how creative they are? Or do you get a group of ‘creative’ people together and assess their mental health?
Researchers Silva and Kaufman noted the two approaches ask different questions:
“One method samples creative people and assesses mental illness; it asks ― “Do creative people tend to be mentally ill?”. A second method samples mentally ill people and assesses creativity; it asks ― “Do mentally ill people tend to be creative?”… It’s possible for the different methods to yield conflicting findings.”
At this point I reframed my thinking from ‘’Does mental illness fuel creativity?” to “What links exist between mental health and creativity – if any?”. Here’s what I found.
Yes, mental health and creativity are linked
In 1987, neuropsychiatrist Nancy Coover Andreasen examined 30 creative writers against a control group for rates of mental illness. She found the following:
“The writers had a substantially higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype.”
The first link. Affective disorders encompass a range of mental health problems – including depression, generalised anxiety disorder (hello!), OCD and bipolar. Interestingly, this study also assessed first-degree relatives in both groups, with the writers’ relatives also demonstrating a higher rate of mental health issues than the control.
A few years later in 1994, psychiatrist Arnold M Ludwig conducted a similar study of female writers against a comparison group, finding similar results:
“Female writers were more likely than members of the comparison group to suffer not only from mood disorders but from drug abuse, panic attacks, general anxiety, and eating disorders as well. The rates of multiple mental disorders were also higher among writers.”
So if you’re a writer, it seems like you could be more likely to have a bad time, possibly even dealing with more than one mental illness. Ludwig did however point out that while he believed the results suggested “a direct relationship between creativity and psychopathology”, that relationship wasn’t a straightforward one, with family and environment playing a significant role. So, while it backs up Andreasen, it’s still pretty hard to isolate ‘creativity’ as the only influencing variable.
Intelligence, creativity and bipolar disorder
More recently in 2010, psychiatrist James McCabe conducted an enormous study of 700,000 Swedish students. His aim was to investigate whether there was a link between high intelligence, or exceptional creativity, and mental illness. Analysing exam results in their teens, he then compared these to the students’ hospital records later in life. Startlingly, he found that those students who achieved the best academic performance were four times more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder than those with average grades.
While the study focuses primarily on intelligence, McCabe added the following information in an interview with The Telegraph:
“A-grades in Swedish and Music had particularly strong associations, supporting the literature which consistently finds associations between linguistic and musical creativity and bipolar disorder.”
Bipolar in particular tends to come up in these types of studies. This could be due to hypomania – where the brain is flooded with ideas, makes connections in innovative ways and enables people to focus for longer periods of time. This, coupled with the range of strong emotions between manic and depressive states, may fuel their creative talents.
Of course, these studies centre on finding mental illness in creative people. But what about the other way around?
No, mental health and creativity are not linked
Silva and Kimbrel (2010) conducted an in-depth study where different facets and definitions of creativity were tested in people with anxiety and depression. Rather than looking for mental illness in creative-types, they were trying to find out whether anxiety and depression predicted creativity:
“The dimensions of anxiety and depression explained small amounts of variance in creativity, regardless of whether creativity was viewed as divergent thinking, creative self-concepts, everyday creative behaviors, or public creative achievements.”
So no matter which way they cut the definition of creativity, the results were insignificant.
But if you really want to see the link between mental health and creativity comprehensively torn apart, I suggest you read Dr R Keith Sawyer’s article for the Huffington Post. As a leading expert on creativity, he assesses and summarises many more studies far more eloquently than I can. The point still stands: there is an overwhelming amount of research that favours the notion of that no: poor mental health does not breed creative thinking or expression.
Earlier, I alluded to the subjective nature of ‘creativity’ and the problem with defining it. Dr Albert Rothenburg, a long-time researcher of creativity in science and art, points out one of the major flaws of studies around creativity:
“The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data.”
Which leads me quite nicely onto my final point.
The curative link
Rothenburg is quite right. Mentally ill people in ‘artistic’ jobs may not be there because they are actually artistic – or creative. Plenty of hospitals, rehabilitations centres and the like use art therapy, for example.
This, in itself, is interesting. Creative endeavours such as art making (via colouring in or creating their own) have been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety (Olson-Pupek, 2014). Writing, too, is deemed an effective way to improve mental health (Leavitt and Pill, 1995).
So while experts may argue passionately about whether mental health is a precursor to creativity, or vice versa, research seems very much in favour of creative expression as a path to better mental health.
What does it all mean?
Those who have experienced low mood, or durations of depression, or constantly battle with a mental disorder, can probably attest to the fact that the creative juices don’t always flow easily in such states.
An intrinsic link between being creative and suffering with a mental disorder may not be yet be scientifically proven beyond reasonable doubt. Still, the notion that creative pursuits tend to ease feelings of anxiety, reduce depression and better frame therapy is harder to argue against.
We only need to look to recent societal trends for more evidence of this. The fact that adult colouring book sales skyrocketed in the last few years. That bullet journals and mood diaries are increasingly popular – available in convenient app forms too. There’s something to be said for the therapeutic effects of creative expression.
I can’t speak for everyone, but as someone who actively partakes in writing, art and music, these activities give me a sense of order. Simplicity in handling just one task at a time. Sometimes it’s escapism, other times it’s a straightforward case of distraction. Perhaps it’s not so much that my creativity is an indicator of my anxiety, but in being creative my anxiety is eased.
I’d love to know if you have any takes on this topic. What are your thoughts on mental health and creativity? What do you make of the research?
Andreasen, N. C. (1987). Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first- degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1288–1292
Leavitt, R.S. & Pill, C.J.(1995). Composing a self through writing: The ego and the ink. Smith College Studies in Social Work. 65. 137-149.
Ludwig, A.M. (1994). Mental illness and creative activity in female writers. American Journal of Psychiatry 1994 151:11, 1650-1656
Olson-Pupek, K. (2014). The Influence of Art Making on Negative Mood States in University Students. American Journal of Applied Psychology. 2. 69-72.
MacCabe, James H. (2010). The Extremes of the Bell Curve: Excellent and Poor School Performance and Risk for Severe Mental Disorders. Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.
Sample, I. (2015). New study claims to find genetic link between creativity and mental illness. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/08/new-study-claims-to-find-genetic-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness. Last accessed 3rd November 2018.
Sawyer, R.K. (2012). Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-r-keith-sawyer/creativity-and-mental-ill_b_2059806.html. Last accessed 3rd November 2018.
Silvia, P. & Kimbrel, N. (2010). A Dimensional Analysis of Creativity and Mental Illness: Do Anxiety and Depression Symptoms Predict Creative Cognition, Creative Accomplishments, and Creative Self-Concepts?. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 4. 2-10.