Mind & Body

Do Creativity and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand?

From Beethoven and Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace, the arts teem with stories of creative geniuses who were tortured by mental illness. That begs the question: To truly be creative, do you need to have a psychiatric disorder? A published review of the available research says no.

Castles in the Sand

At first, the idea that creatives must have mental health issues might seem obvious. Most people can name a dozen high-profile talents who dealt with mental illness in their lives. The idea of the "mad genius" is older than psychology itself — Plato even said, "all the good poets are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs." But just because an idea is old, widespread, or immediate doesn't mean it's true. To really delve into whether creativity is tied to mental illness, you need to lead a scientific study.

Ludwig van Beethoven

When a researcher wants to produce a new study, they first read up on what's already been done. When it comes to analyzing the link between mental illness and creativity, there are two pivotal publications that nearly all researchers cite in their papers, according to Ph.D. psychologist Judith Schlesinger: a 1987 study by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold K. Ludwig, and a 1989 study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. That's where the problem starts.

As Schlesinger writes in a 2009 article published in an American Psychological Association journal, neither of these studies were rigorous enough to warrant the regard that researchers hold them in today. The Andreasen study only looked at 30 creatives over 15 years. All of them were writers, 27 out of the 30 were men, and they were plucked from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a place she says has "long been a famous retreat where eminent writers go to recover from setbacks and burnout." The study's definition of mental illness included everything from regular, severe symptoms to a single experience at some point in a person's life. But even with those limitations, Andreasen's result claiming that 80 percent of writers have mood disorders has been spread far and wide — sometimes extending beyond writers to include creatives of any kind.

Jamison's study had similar problems. She used 47 high-profile creatives she knew personally and didn't use a control group — that is, people from the general population she could compare her study group to. Like the other study, the definition of "mood disorder" included everything from seeing a therapist to taking psychiatric medication, and her subjects were mostly middle-aged white male writers. Yet she extended her results way beyond that by saying "this study spells out pretty convincingly that there can be some very positive aspects to mood disorders, and the major one is creativity."

Looking Again

Inspired by Schlesinger's article, in 2017, psychology Ph.D. candidate Christa L. Taylor took a look at the research that's been done since those ill-fated studies. She performed a systematic review and meta-analysis — a type of super-study that re-analyzes the data from dozens or even hundreds of other studies — to see what evidence there was for a link between creativity and mood disorders. The result? She found no clear relationship.

"You can have a mood disorder and be creative, but those things are in no way dependent on one another," Taylor said in a press release. Her result doesn't mean there's no link, only that there's little good evidence for one.

That's important because the "mad genius" idea can be damaging. Sure, it makes those of us who don't have groundbreaking levels of creativity feel a little better about ourselves — "at least I have my mental health!" — but both for people in creative pursuits and people with mental illness, it can have serious consequences. Creatives are often judged harshly by potential romantic partners, landlords, and even banks who think they're too big of a risk to get involved with. And for creative people who have serious disorders, the myth could lead them to avoid treatment so they can keep their gift intact.

When psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg critiqued Andreasen's classic study in 1990, he concluded that all creatives did have one thing in common — it just wasn't mental illness. "Only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is absolutely, across the board, present in all creative people: motivation ... they want specifically to create and to be creative, not merely to be successful or effective or competent." If you've got the motivation, you have the potential for greatness — mental illness or no.

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Learn more about this dangerous myth in "Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process," by Richard M. Berlin, M.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 2, 2018

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