We all remember Robin Williams and the amazing contributions he’s made to society with his on-the-spot comedy. I’m sure we also remember his tragic death last year when he took his own life, losing his battle with mental illness that he valiantly fought for many years. This pattern is nothing new. Plenty of creative geniuses have struggled with psychological problems and recent research suggests that this isn’t a coincidence, but that there is a direct link between creativity and mental illness.
First off, what is creativity? In the field of psychological and scientific research creativity is defined as the ability to produce valued ideas or objects (Morris & Maisto, 2015, 261) and is something that can be measured with a specific set of tests (Morris & Maisto, 2015, 262). It is shown that people with below average IQs are hindered in their creative abilities, but after that there is no link between intelligence and creativity (Morris & Maisto, 2015, p.
It has also been found that creativity can be influenced by outside factors as well and that a disorganized environment facilitates creativity (Morris & Maisto, 2015, p. 262). As mentioned before, Robin Williams is only one example of a creative genius that has been plagued by mental illness. However, many artists for centuries have battled depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and a variety of other psychological ailments. Van Gogh cut off his own ear; Sylvia Plath, a poet and writer, killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning (Adams, 2014, para. 11); German composer, Robert Schumann had been admitted to an asylum following a suicide attempt; Edvard Munch, the artist behind The Scream’, suffered severe anxiety.
Not to mention a large number of writers who struggled with depression including Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemmingway, and Virginia Woolf. Many of these people have also spoken about their illness. Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother describing his anxiety and depression that he states there is no apparent cause for (Adams, 2014, para. 7). Even more reliable than the famous examples, there have been a few studies done about the subject.
Simon Kyaga, the senior consultant of psychiatry at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, led a study that tracked more than one million Swedish citizens (Adams, 2014, para. 14). The results of this study found that people in creative fields were 8% more likely to suffer bipolar disorder. Writers, specifically, were found to be 50% more likely to attempt suicide than the population of non-creative people and 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder. In this study it was also found that relatives of these people were more likely to live with schizophrenia, anorexia, autism, and bipolar disorder. Other studies have suggested that there may be a genetic trait which fosters both creativity and mental illness. A psychiatrist in Hungary, Keri Szaboles, gave 128 participants a creativity test and found that the ones with higher creativity levels were also the ones that, when given a blood test, carried the genes associated with severe mental disorders (Adams, 2014, para. 21). A group of scientists in Iceland, led by Kari Stephansson, conducted a study which reported that the genetic factors which have been found to raise the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are more prevalent in people who go into creative professions such as musicians, writers, and artists. People in those professions were found to be 25% more likely than people in less creative careers such as salespersons and farmers to have that gene (Sample, 2015, para. 3).
Another more specific study was done by Andreas Fink in Austria about the prevalence of schizotypy, which is a less severe form of schizophrenia. Despite the large number of examples and several studies done which seemingly prove a strong link between creativity and mental illness, there are still skeptics. Albert Rothenberg, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, is one of them. He stated that the criteria set in these studies for being creative isn’t that creative. That being in a creative profession does not mean that the people they are studying are actually creative. He claims that it is a coincidence that some people that were well-known for their creativity are also mentally ill. To back up his view he personally interviewed 45 Nobel Prize winners who were awarded due to their creative breakthroughs and asked them about their strategies; Rothenberg found no evidence of mental illness in any of them.
The professor also points out that art therapy is used in many mental health facilities and thus when the patients are released from there they are more likely to go into creative fields, but that doesn’t mean they’re more creative (Sample, 2015, para. 15). Furthermore, Kyaga, the Swedish researcher from before, found in the same study between mental illness and creativity that people in certain creative professions such as dancers and directors are actually less likely to suffer mental illness (Adams, 2014, para. 30). I have had experience with this as well. I am one of the many creative types that also suffer from mental illness. I’ve been writing fiction for years, though completely amateur and unpublished, and have played violin for eight years. Bipolar disorder runs in my family. My mother and maternal grandmother have both been diagnosed with it, as well as myself. Alongside that I have great anxiety and depression. Reading about these studies and the links found between creativity and mental illness – particularly in writers – doesn’t surprise me. As a writer it is necessary to make interesting, realistic characters. Writers have to know their characters inside and out. We have to get in their minds, become the character for short periods of time.
It’s all part of the writing process. To be in their shoes, imagine that what’s happening to them is happening to us. To create great stories there must be conflict and drama and places where things go rock-bottom for the protagonist and if the author has not been there, how can they effectively describe the variety of emotions their characters feel? This may be the reason why authors that struggle with depression and bipolar disorder are the ones that publish the greatest titles. Due to my personal struggles I may be biased, hoping that there’s a silver lining to the things I’ve been forced to live with. However, based on the vast research and several studies proving that there is a connection between mental illness and creativity, including that certain genes may play a factor with both of these things, I am comforted and confident that the tortured artist is not just a romantic idea, as some skeptics believe.