Monday, January 10, 2011

Demystification Monday: Creativity and Mental Illness

So, is it true? Are creative types more likely to be mentally ill? Could creativity ever be mistaken for mental illness, or vice versa? We can all probably name a few famous artists and writers who were mentally ill:

Beethoven: Bipolar disorder with psychotic features
Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett: Schizophrenia

Sylvia Plath: Bipolar disorder

Ernest Hemingway: Depression

To name just a few.

But there are plenty of creative types who are NOT mentally ill, right?

To a large extent, what's "normal" is a purely social construction. It's just what most people think is appropriate. Every culture and subculture is different. So does being "weird" or "marching to the beat of your own drummer" equal mental illness?

On the one hand, I don't think it's that helpful to think of it that way. Here's how I think about mental illness:


You can be weird and still function. You can be a slave to your muse and still have relatively good hygeine and maintain normal relationships and get out of bed in the morning. When you can't--when you really, really can't keep up with usual tasks of daily living--then it's likely you have a problem.

Mental illness makes it hard to function. Quirks and creativity in and of themselves do not constitute a mental disorder.

On the other hand, there's actually some research to suggest there IS a link between creativity and mental illness. One study found that writers were much more likely than non-writers to have disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. More recently, one group of researchers discovered that folks with schizotypal disorder were more creative. You can read more about their fascinating research here.

But other studies haven't found the same connection between creativity and mental illness. If you want to read for yourself, here's a link to a review study (an analysis of several studies in the last century) that summarizes these findings, and here's a link to a neat little article about the relation between writing and mental illness, which includes suggestions for more in-depth reading.

What nearly all the studies find: folks with really severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, or depressive disorders that impair functioning in the extreme, ARE NOT more creative. At some point, the mental illness is so crippling that it disables creativity. Remember my post about psychosis? When thoughts are disorganized, when you lose touch with reality, when you're too depressed to move or too manic to hold a thought in your head ... it's kinda hard to be productive.

Do you think of yourself as a creative type? What do you think of research that shows a connection between creativity and mental illness? Between writing and depression/bipolar disorder? Is it frightening? Encouraging? Irrelevant?

Be sure to check out psychiatrist and writer Dr. Laura Diamond's blog post today about symptoms and diagnosis of schizophrenia! We are now collaborating to answer writers' questions about depicting mental health/illness in their books. Feel free to shoot us a writing-related question, and we'll cover it!


  1. Glad to hear this. I'm a creative type, and I'm pretty positive I don't have a mental illness. Though I have heard people with ADHD (not that this is a mental illness) are extremely creative. At least that's the excuse my son and I use. ;)

  2. Okay, so what does Steven King have? Give him a diagnosis, Dr. B!

    Yes, I am creative!! Whoot! Always have been. I one an award (and $100) in elementary school for a Martin Luther King poster I painted. ;-)

    I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with me ... the doctors just haven't figured it out yet. But it's not frightening, I wouldn't want to be anything but me!!!


  3. This is the most interesting post I've read recently. I do believe that there's a very fine line between creativity and mental illness, but heck, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm darn weird, but, hey, I like being that way ;)

  4. It's nice to meet you, Sarah. I clicked over after visiting Rachel and Laura's blogs. Fascinating post!

  5. So fascinating! I have wondered about this for a while. I didn't know that about the Pink Floyd guy.

  6. LOL! Hmmm... is this a trick question? Actually, I'd say the whole query process is enough to trigger depression alone. But I suppose there has to be some disconnect to be able to imagine an entire world plus characters and put them all in a book. The level of severity is up for debate~

  7. Jennifer--thanks!

    LTM--re: querying, absolutely. That's why I wrote those posts about cognitive therapy for writers!

    Lydia--I think his mental illness was greatly exacerbated by both the stress of being a performer AND intense substance use, including LSD.

    Ciara--thanks for visiting, and nice to meet you, too!

    Bee and JD--I think that extremely creative types do walk right up to the edge, and sometimes cross over. And some conditions, like hypomania and schizotypy, can enable increased creativity--but can come with consequences.

    Stina--ADHD is considered a mental illness technically, but it's certainly true that it's possible to live a completely normal life even if you have the condition. The CEO of JetBlue has ADHD and doesn't take medication--he likes the way he thinks just fine ... and obviously he's onto something there!

  8. Wow, great post! I'm so glad that I'm amongst brilliance in my social disorders. Thanks for another informative and entertaining read!

  9. i loved what you said about thinking differently does not equate mental illness- but impairment is the thing to look for. sometimes, i think people get that confused. that if a person isn't interested in the norm for a certain society that there must be something WRONG with them.. when it isn't something wrong- just different. very interesting stuff here! (as usual!!) :)

  10. What an awesome and interesting post!!! So fascinating. ;)

  11. Wonderful post, Sarah! I wonder what would happen if you put 1,000 writers in a room and had them all take the same personality test. Then you did the same thing with a group of mathmaticians, what the data would show? Would one group clearly be left-brained and the other right-brained????