Riding Wild Horses

Yesterday I had an email from the women’s writing magazine Mslexia. They were asking me to do a survey they’d set up to look at the link between creativity and mental health. I don’t normally bother with surveys, but this was a subject that interested me, and has done for some time. Back at university, for one of my assignments, I did a presentation on the prevalence of mental illnesses in famous writers in the past and how it affected their writing. I was also trying to prove that in most instances, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had a negative effect on the ability to create. Also, the drink and/or drugs that often accompanied the illnesses (and still do, as a form of self-medication).

It has long been known that many famous writers and poets have had a history of mental disorders, including symptoms such as alcoholism and drug taking. Kay Redfield Jamison lists them in her book: Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament(1994), including such literary greats as: John Berryman; George Gordon, Lord Byron; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Emily Dickinson; T. S. Eliot; Gerard Manley Hopkins; Sylvia Plath; Edgar Allan Poe; Ezra Pound; William Faulkner; Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.[i] Of course, these are just a few of the ones listed in her book, but the names above, with their associated glamour and fame give an idea of how it has become fashionable in some circles to come to the conclusion that to be a creative genius, you have to be mad. Of course, this is not the case. There are many more ‘creative geniuses’ that do not suffer from any kind of mental disorder at all. Mental disorder, of any kind or severity, can also cause terrible obstacles to being able to create anything.

Much research has been done into the frequency of mood disorders occurring in those in creative professions. In 1995, Professor Arnold Ludwig looked at the life histories (including family history, health, achievements, sexuality and addictive behaviours) of 1004 eminent people whose biographies had been published between 1960 and 1990. This research was eventually published in his book, The Price of Greatness.[ii] Of his sample, 59% showed a lifetime prevalence of mental disorder, and of that number, the majority had achieved recognition in some form of creative profession:[iii]

Although it could be argued that Ludwig’s methodology was not specific enough, with his categories too broad, other studies have shown that his general conclusions are correct. Kay Redfield Jamison, an expert in the field of bipolar disorders and Professor Nancy Andreasen have both carried out studies into the connection between mood disorders and writers (1989 and 1987 respectively). Although smaller than Ludwig’s, both studies confirmed that there appeared to be a link, and a genetic one at that, between creativity and mental disorder.[v] And in 1994, Ludwig’s biographical method was copied by Felix Post, a British psychiatrist. Applying stricter diagnostic criteria than Ludwig, he examined the biographies of 291 famous men who could be described as either scientists, composers, politicians, visual artists, thinkers or writers. His study showed, like Ludwig’s, that there was a higher proportion of mental disorder among the eminent than in the general population, and that the highest percentage occurred in creative writers.[vi]

I, myself am on the bipolar spectrum, somewhere between bipolar II and cyclothymia, although, now my condition is successfully managed, I would barely register on it at all. In the bad old days before it was controlled I had wonderful highs (hypomanias) – thankfully not the full-scale manic episodes seen in bipolar I – and then terrible depressive lows that went on for days and weeks. In the hypomanic stages I would have the most fantastic ideas for writing, art, projects etc. and the energy to do them. I would start and then cycle into depression. Suddenly the ideas seemed to be crap, I was useless and apathetic. The projects got abandoned. And so it went on and on…

So did bipolar help my writing? Sometimes it did, although it meant that if I was writing a novel, it would be in little spurts, every time I had a high episode. But what I did write was pretty good and worked well. Of course, without a disciplined writing flow, writing anything of length took a long time. I also often got distracted by starting something new. However when I was depressed, the novel went away and I tended to write poetry – the sort that gives introspective navel-gazing a bad name. But that didn’t matter because, in hindsight I realise now that I used it subconsciously as therapy, as a way to express the way I felt. Either way, I wasn’t working productively, and as a writer was going nowhere. Since getting myself sorted out, I believe I am a far better writer with relation to sustained creativity and discipline (as well as being nicer to be around!)

I have been very lucky in finding a way to control my bipolar. Others are less so: what works for one person may not work for another, and I know of many artists – of all kinds – who still struggle daily with mood swings and/or other mental health problems despite trying all sorts of medications and therapies. They are extremely creative, talented people and yet quite often they find they are fighting demons instead of making art.

So why are creative people cursed with such a prevalence of mental illness? Some studies have suggested that it is the mental state itself that sets the pre-conditions for the artistic personality: the bipolar high, the intense emotions involved in both highs and sometimes in depression, a different way of seeing the world than others, a heightened sensitivity and empathy. This may be true for some or many, but probably not for all. And people without any mental illness are also capable of these things.

Other suggestions have been that the human race advanced because of the ideas of these ‘different thinkers’, that the genes responsible for, example, bipolar and schizophrenia somehow became useful in evolutionary terms. And another theory was that creative people, certainly in the past, were victims of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, persecution and social alienation – environmental factors associated with triggering or developing mental illness. Alternatively, it could be argued that some cases have been caused by the expectation that artists need to live with some sort of crisis, and so they ‘act out’ the role until it becomes fact.

All of these can be argued back and forth until the cows come home. The truth is, there probably isn’t one answer to why; no smoking gun. But at least today there is more help available, and it should be taken. The idea that an artist has to have their ‘disease’ in order to create should be challenged as a romantic load of baloney. And the stigma of mental health, even in today’s world, should be confronted. That is why I am never ashamed to talk about my own experience: it is an illness that needs looking after, just like diabetes or asthma. Nothing more and nothing less.


[i] Redfield Jamison, Kay, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1994), pps. 267-269

[iii] Nettle, Daniel, Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.145

[iv] Nettle, Daniel, Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.145

[v] Nettle, Daniel, Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pps. 142-143

[vi] Nettle, Daniel, Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pps. 146-147

Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

Author Kay Redfield Jamison
Binding Kindle Edition
Edition New Ed
EISBN 9781439106631
Format Kindle eBook
Label Free Press
List Price £6.99
Manufacturer Free Press
Number Of Pages 384
Product Group eBooks
Product Type Name ABIS_EBOOKS
Publication Date 1996-10-18
Publisher Free Press
Release Date 1996-10-18
Studio Free Press
Title Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
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