Wednesday 21 August 2019

The curse of creativity

Patricia Casey

On a trip to the National Gallery in London recently I wandered into room 45, which contains several of Vincent Van Gogh's most recognisable paintings.

The information on the paintings noted that many were painted during his time in the Saint-Paul asylum near Saint-Remy, in the Provence area of France. They showed his genius, evident even in the throes of major mental illness.

The list of creative people who have suffered from major psychiatric illness is lengthy and includes actors, artists, composers and so on. Names such as Robert Schuman, Degas, and Vivien Leigh are all known to us.

For some, their creativity was overwhelmed by their illness and they took their own lives, among them Sylvia Plath, Alexander McQueen, and Ernest Hemingway.


A question that has often been raised is whether the link between creativity and mental illness is real. How does the scientific evidence stack up? Could it be that we are just overly aware of creative people who have a mental illness?

The second question is whether the link is environmental or genetic. Is it possible that the bohemian existence which artists inhabit causes mental illness or is it driven by genes that are common to creativity and mental illness?

Whatever the cause, the connection has been recognised for centuries and was expressed cogently by one of the world's greatest poets, John Dryden.

In his satirical poem 'Absalom and Achitophel' he wrote: "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

The connection between creativity and mental illness has been examined and powerfully answered in a study published in the 'British Journal of Psychiatry'.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, headed by Dr Simon Kyaga, examined the medical records of 300,000 people with a mental disorder requiring hospital admission between 1973 and 2003. The study was with reference to whether they were in creative occupations.

The study found that those with bipolar disorder and their siblings were more likely to be engaged in creative occupations than were less close relatives.

For schizophrenia there was no relationship to creativity except for a subgroup in specifically artistic occupations. For those with depression there was no association with engagement in any of the creative occupations.

A further strand to the study was to examine the relationship between mental illness and occupations associated with more conventional and less artistic attributes, such as accountants.

The researchers found no link between these occupational groups and the illnesses studied.

What do these findings mean? They show that creativity is associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but not depression. The fact that the same involvement in creative work was found in close family members, such as siblings and parents, shows that there is likely to be a strong genetic explanation for association.

Apart from being of general interest, what is the importance of this finding? It is well recognised in clinical practice that those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often discontinue their treatments because of the loss of the creative urge or as a result of a diminution in 'buzz' that imaginative exercises generate.


Recognising the role of creativity in patient's lives may help clinicians understand the patients. In addition, creativity is a feature that may enrich the patient during times of illness.

Notably, Van Gogh's psychiatrist actively facilitated his painting during hospitalisation and some of his finest works emerged during those periods. Society is the richer for this and his paintings touch the souls of millions who view them.

If studies such as the one described here tell us nothing more than that creativity is inspirational, even during periods of bleakness, then it will have taught us a very valuable lesson that can influence our understanding of those with mental illness.

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