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Are artists really more tortured than the rest of us? Let's consider this myth and the studies that assess whether there might be a link between creativity and mental illness. If you need help with mental and/or substance use disorders, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) - Free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service:

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Karolinska Institutet, 2013:
Karolinska Institutet, 2011:
Buffalo State, 2017:
Johns Hopkins University, 1990:
Centers for Disease Control, 2016:

Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Manic- Depressive Illness and Creativity”:
“The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness”:
Critique of Redfield Jamison findings:
“The relationship between measures of creativity and schizotypy”:

The latest research on creativity and the arts, June 2014:

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The myth of the tortured artist is strong.  The depressive poet, the irascible painter, the manic, substance-abusing writer.  Hannah Gadsby brings this up in her Netflix special "Nanette" and that's right, I'm not done talking about it yet.  It's super rare that art history gets mentioned in the wider world and I have to maximize this opportunity, but anyway, this is what she says about Vincent Van Gogh: "He wasn't born ahead of his time.  He couldn't network, 'cause he was mental.  He was crazy.  He had unstable energy.  People would cross the street to avoid him.  That's why he didn't sell any more than one painting in his lifetime.  He couldn't network.  This whole idea of this romanticizing of mental illness is ridiculous.  It is not a ticket to genius.  It's a ticket to (bleep) nowhere."  

Did I raise my fist in triumph when I heard this?  Yes.  Yes, I did.  Romanticizing mental illness in the lives of artists is an absurdly popular trope in movies, books, social media, and in art itself.  Not only is it not reflective of the lives of most people who do creative work for a living, it can be destructive and dangerous, but since "Nanette", I've been trying to better understand whether there really is a link between creativity and mental illness.  

Every few years, a new study comes out that looks at this from a different angle.  The Karolinska Institutet found that when looking at Swedish population registries involving over 1.2 million individuals that people in creative professions were in general not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders compared to the population at large.  However, people in creative professions were shown to be very slightly more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, if you're Swedish.

But anyway, if we assume the Swedes are no different than the rest of us, this finding could resonate with some retrospective diagnoses that have been made about creatives of the past.

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Like some have noted that in Edgar Allen Poe's letters and in his actual writing, he describes symptoms typical of bipolar disorders like extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels.  He wrote in a letter, "I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious by fits.  I have thus rambled away whole months and awake at last to a sort of mania for composition.  Then I scribble all day and read all night so long as the disease endures." 

Now, there are different types of bipolar disorder, but all of them share these kinds of up periods known as manic episodes and down ones called depressive episodes.  Poe even refers to it as a mania, but it's that back and forth wave between extreme productivity and then crushing depression that we tend to see depicted in movies and contributes to the tortured reputation of artists.  

We have no idea how an actual professional using today's criteria might diagnose Edgar Allen Poe if he time traveled to be evaluated in person in the present, but people love to puzzle over this question regardless, perhaps to better understand the person whose work they like who died at age 40 under mysterious circumstances or perhaps to try to solve a question that can never be solved, why a person was able to make the amazing things that they made.

Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has written and spoken extenisvely and eloquently about what she found to be a disproportionate rate of mood disorder or psychopathy among highly creative people, namely renowned writers, artists, and composers, and she has also explored how the temperament or cognitive styles associated with some mental illnesses can enhance or boost creativity.  Like during a manic episode, someone might experience the extreme focus, restlessness, and little need for sleep that could be seen as a temporary advantage when working on something.  Redfield Jamison says, "The manic-depressive temperament," what we used to call bipolar, "is in a biological sense, an alert, sensitive, system that reacts strongly and swiftly.

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It responds to the world with a wide range of emotional, perceptual, intellectual, behavioral, and energy changes."  Which can be good things, but this manic state, while it may be experienced as pure creativity, can in practice yield work that is partially or even entirely incoherent and more critically, can be followed by episodes of extreme and life-threatening depression.  Redfield-Jamison made this chart of the productivity of composer Robert Schumann for a Scientific American article in 1995, showing a relationship between his mental health states and how many compositions he made in a given year.  You see the most compositions were made when he was manic and the least when depressed, and of course, none at all after he attempted suicide and later died.

It's important to note that Redfield-Jamison's studies and the ones she has based her findings on have been criticized for an over-reliance on anecdotal accounts, small sample sizes, and inconsistent methodologies, but even if we consider a more recent study from 2017 that found a slight correlation between schizophrenia and creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, they conclude that while mild schizophrenia symptoms might support creativity, full blown symptoms hurt or undermine it.  

As Redfield-Jamison put it, "No one is creative when severely depressed, psychotic, or dead."  Opening the door to say that some aspects of mental illness can be beneficial or desirable in some way is tricky.  It can definitely send us down the path of romanticizing illness, but it might possibly help in finding new approaches to treatment, ones that admit or try to mitigate the loss of aspects of diseases that can be positive.  But this is different for everybody.  Musician Jeff Tweedy looks at the relationship between his productivity and mental health quite differently.  

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Jeff Tweedy: I look at it like the part of me that is able to create managed to create in spite of the problems I was having, in spite, and you know, almost as if that was the only healthy part of me and that's the part of me that I feel like getting healthier has, I've been able to nurture.

Sarah: The more research you read, the more you find that the evidence suggesting that mental illness is conducive to creativity is incredibly slight.  The exception that the Karolinska Institutet study did find when looking into the prevalence of mental illness in certain professions was authors, who were found to have an increased likelihood of bipolar disorder as well as schizophrenia, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.  Make of that what you will, but remember the correlation does not equal causation.  Mental illness does not make you a good writer.

It's also worth noting that other professions have been found to have higher than average rates of mental illness.  A famous 1990 study found that lawyers had a higher rate of major depressive disorders when compared with employed persons generally, and a 2012 CDC analysis of data from 17 states found that the occupation group with the highest suicide rate was farm workers, fishermen, and forestry.

For me, these studies only raise more questions, like the Karolinska Institutet defined "creative professions" as artistic and scientific, which I thought was really cool, because of course creativity is involved in science, although scientists do also get the rep for being mad, but then I tried to think about what professions are definitively not creative, like can't you be a really creative accountant, awake in the night with a brilliant new idea for how to best account things?  

You can be a creative engineer, teacher, YouTuber, building contractor, barista, statistician, mortician, truck driver, mechanic, flight attendant.

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Flight attendant: We've got six emergency exists on this aircraft, two forward exit doors, two overwing window exits and two rear exits doors.  Signs overhead and lights on the floor lead to all exits.

Sarah: Seriously, what are the jobs that don't or can't involve creativity?  Data entry?  Assembly line work?  But then there's the reality that what you do for a living and fill out on forms doesn't necessarily reflect how creative you are during your breaks or in your spare time or just inside your head and then of course you're not always doing the job you're best at or that suits your talents.  The more I tried to pin down what creativity is and whom can be said to have it, the more indeterminate it becomes.  There are studies about what creativity is, but I can tell you decisively that reading them may have the harmful effect of draining all creativity from your consciousness, but examples abound of prominent, successful artists who do not appear to suffer from mental illness.

They might not be good candidates for a Hollywood movie whose three act structure requires that they're pretty good, then hit rock bottom, and then rebound for a transcendent finish, be it in recovery, retirement, or death.  It's usually death.  Mental health is something artists negotiate, just like accountants do or lawyers or anybody else, but mental illness is real and serious and if you need help, you can and should reach out to qualified professionals who would like nothing better than to try to assist you in getting healthier.

What makes you an artist or productive or successful or what makes you successful and productive and an artist all at the same time is extremely unclear and unpredictable and changing.  Whether or not you experience mental illness, you can be a person sensitive to the world around you, a thinking and feeling and expressive person able to make things that are meaningful to other people.

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What are the things in life that kindle and support your creativity?  Maybe by focusing on that question, we can reframe the conversation about how art happens and how we can better know and celebrate the strange and mysterious and sublime part of personhood.

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