Creativity & Mental Illness: Are Writers Quite Possibly Out of Their Minds?

“All poets are mad,” asserted English writer Robert Burton in his 1621 book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton was exaggerating, of course. However, many people do believe that artists, and writers are more likely than others to be mentally ill. Many well-known artists, writers and musicians have had a history of mental illness, in some cases leading to suicide. Writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, along with painter Vincent van Gogh, and musician Kurt Cobain all committed suicide. Painters Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, and musicians’ Cole Porter and Charles Mingus suffered from depression. Is there actually a link between artistic creativity and mental illness? Most artists are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not artists. However, several studies have suggested that artists are more likely than others to suffer from a class of mental illnesses called mood disorders, which include major depression and manic-depressive illness.

Statistics of Famous Writers and Artists with Mental Illness

Many doctors have reviewed the medical and psychiatric problems of the painter Vincent van Gogh, diagnosing him with a range of disorders, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, digitalis and absinthe poisoning, manic-depressive psychosis, acute intermittent porphyria and Meniere’s disease. For years, scientists have documented some kind of connection between manic depression and creative output. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, researchers turned to accounts of mood disorders written by prominent artists and physicians. Although largely anecdotal, this work strongly suggested that renowned writers, artists and composers, and their first-degree relatives were far more likely to experience mood disorders, and to commit suicide than was the general population. During the past 20 years, more systematic studies of artistic populations have confirmed these findings. Diagnostic and psychological analyses of living writers and artists give relevant estimates of the rates and types of psycho pathology they experience.

Mental Illness & Creative Accomplishment

Manic-depressive illness and creative accomplishment share certain non cognitive features like the ability to function well on a few hours of sleep, the focus needed to work intensively, bold and restless attitudes, and an ability to experience a profound depth and variety of emotions. The less dramatic daily aspects of manic-depression might also provide creative advantage to some individuals. The manic-depressive temperament is, in a biological sense, an alert, sensitive system that reacts strongly and swiftly. It responds to the world with a wide range of emotional, perceptual, intellectual, behavioral and energy changes. In a sense, depression is a view of the world through a dark glass, and mania is witnessed through a colorful array of deep aspects, quite often it is brilliance in the making, but slightly fractured.

Mood Disorders In Writers & Artists

Major depression is characterized by prolonged deep despair. Alternating periods of euphoria and despair characterize manic- depressive illness. Suicidal thoughts are common in people suffering from either of these disorders. Some researchers speculate that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing mania reads sharpened and unusually creative thinking. People with mood disorders also experience a broad range of deep emotions. This combination of symptoms might lend itself to prolific artistic creativity. Others believe that artistic occupations might by their nature magnify the symptoms of mental illness. Artists, musicians and writers often work alone. When they begin to feel upset or depressed, they would not have as much support and encouragement as people who work around others.

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