Bipolar disorder and creativity

Although mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are serious mental health concerns that may cause disability, it is unwise to assume that individuals with these illnesses will not accomplish much in life.

In fact, many people with severe mood disorders still go on to be very successful in their fields.

Today I want to discuss in particular the link between artistic creativity and mood disorders, specifically bipolar disorder. Over the past 20 years much research has been done examining this link.

It has long been known that many artists are eccentric and seem more likely than normal to suffer from disturbances in the mind. Many famous individuals in the arts today and in the past have openly suffered from mood disorders. Some of these include Vincent Van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Gabriel and Axl Rose, to name only a very few.

Some studies have reported that between 25 and 75 per cent of artists have been treated for mood disorders of some kind.

This link is particularly strong among poets, as many as 50 per cent studied had either been hospitalized or needed extensive care as a result of a mood disorder. Also, poets were found to be 20 to 30 times more likely to suffer a psychotic disorder than the general population, 20 times more likely to be committed to long term care facilities and five times more likely to commit suicide than normal.

Another study found that among artists, the suicide rate is six times that occurring in the general population. Still another bibliographical study of 20th century artists found between 10 and 20 times the incidence rate for suicide and even 10 times the suicide rate of non-artistic individuals with bipolar disorder.

Yet other studies comparing artistic and non artistic individuals have found significant links between artistic creativity and mood disorders. One study at the University of Iowa found that 80 per cent of artists surveyed said they had experienced a mood disorder while only 30 per cent of individuals in non-creative jobs reported mood symptoms.

Although the specific cause or nature of this link between creativity and mood disorders is not fully understood, there are some theories about it. Some researchers believe that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively.

For example, when people experience a manic episode, they tend to have greater confidence, more energy and motivation and are considerably less inhibited. In this frame of mind they are more apt to try new things and are less concerned about the opinion of others. These attributes can be beneficial to the creative process. The opposite occurs during a depressive episode. Artistic productivity tends to wax and wane in sync with shifts in mood for most bipolar artists.

Most people cannot be very artistically productive while in the midst of a depressive or severely manic episode, but when the mood returns to normal it may be possible to draw on the insights and range of emotions experienced and incorporate these into artistic endeavours.

Ultimately, creative greatness still depends on the innate talent and learned skills of the individual. Although it occurs more often than is average, most artists do not suffer from a mood disorder and most individuals with a mood disorder do not achieve artistic greatness.

For those who would argue they do not want to treat their mood disorder for fear it will hinder their artistic talent, this is not usually the case. As I mentioned earlier, it is nearly impossible to be productive while experiencing a mood episode. Treatment does not prevent creativity, but it may allow the individual to live longer with less disability and be more productive. Creativity should not come at the cost of loved ones, health or life.

At Okanagan Clinical Trials, we have several ongoing studies in depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. If you think you may experience one of these conditions, contact our office for more information or for a free, no obligation medical assessment.


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