The Dark Side of a Beautiful Mind: The Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

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Michelle Robinson Volunteer Writer

Everybody has heard of the stereotypical ‘tortured genius’; the musician, artist, or writer whose own dark thoughts and feelings fuels the creativity behind their work. The poet Sylvia Plath, the musician Kurt Cobain, and the actor Heath Ledger are notable examples of creative people who expressed their anguish via their work, and ended up taking their own lives. This begs the question, is there a link between creativity and mental illness? Recent research appears to suggest that there is a link, and it might have something to do with what’s in our DNA.

The research

A large study carried out by Icelandic scientists reported that those in creative professions, such as artists, writers, musicians, and dancers were 25% more likely to carry gene variants that increased the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The study looked at genetic and medical information from 86,000 people in Iceland, and those with the genetic variants were twice as likely to have schizophrenia and one third more likely to have bipolar disorder. Scientists say that countless genes can increase the risk of mental illness, but they also highlight the role of life experiences and other factors in the development of mental ill health.

What might explain the link?

The scientists highlight that creative people think differently, which is not an issue for most people, but for the 1% of people who have the gene variants for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, this can lead to disordered thinking and the development of mental illness. They add that many people who are creative straddle the line between sanity and insanity. But not everyone agrees.

The arguments against a link between creativity and mental illness

Creative people aren’t necessarily mentally ill, their thought processes are just different

Harold Rothenberg, A prominent professor of psychiatry at Harvard University doesn’t agree that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. He believes that the ‘tortured genius’ wrestling with his or her inner demons is nothing but romanticism. He uses the example of Van Gogh, stating that he just happened to be mentally ill as well as being highly creative. Creative people aren’t necessarily prone to being mentally ill, they just often use different thought processes.

Rothenberg wrote a book in 2014 where he states that studies that link creativity with mental illness are flimsy, as creativity is not proven by being part of an artistic society or working in art or related occupations. He states that many people with mental illness are attracted to jobs in the arts or in literature, but not necessarily because they are good at it. He points to the use of Art Therapy in psychiatric hospitals, stating that this would prompt many patients to continue with artistic pursuits when they have recovered, whether they were accomplished as artists or not.

Mental illness is not required for innovation

Research does seem to suggest that many creative people had difficult experiences in their early lives or throughout their adult lives, but there is no suggestion that having a mental illness was what made someone eminent in their field.

Everyday creativity does not require suffering, in fact it’s a therapeutic outlet for people who might be suffering

People who are creative in everyday life, for example, people who take part in crafts or take photographs, are generally more open-minded and positive than those who don’t engage in creative pursuits. People who engage in creative activities also report a sense of general wellbeing which is higher than average. This might explain why creative pursuits might be so beneficial for people who suffer from mental illness and other problems. Studies have shown that creative writing can increase the function of the immune system, boost self-esteem and reduce anxiety. There is also a body of research which is looking at how creative expression can help people recover from trauma.

My own experience…

I have found solace in writing at times when I have been in a very dark place. It’s a focus, a distraction, and an outlet for thoughts and feelings that are better out of my head and down on paper. But through my writing, I have found a way to channel my pain. I’m not sure that suffering or going through painful things makes you a better writer, artist, or musician, but I think that it gives your work a certain raw quality. You just know when you read something, see a painting, or hear a piece of music, whether someone’s heart and soul has gone into it or not. You can see right away that the creator has taken their pain and they have turned it into something beautiful. Sometimes the most beautiful things come from the most horrible places.

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