Depression is marked by feelings of profound sadness, worthlessness, and a loss of interest in activities. Bipolar disorder is similar in that there are times of depression. But there are also times of mania, where the person feels powerful, excited, and impulsive.
People with mood disorders face many challenges in their personal and work lives. Despite these challenges, there is the popular idea that conditions like depression and bipolar disorder are linked to creativity. It’s easy to find support for this. A quick search online pulls up many famous examples of tortured artists—Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, poets Robert Lowell, John Berryman, or Sylvia Plath.
But is there any real evidence to back up this idea?
Some studies have found a link between being a creative writer and having a mental illness. Researcher James C. Kaufman was interested in discovering if certain types of writers or artists are more likely to have mental health problems, and he found that female poets seem to have the highest risk.
A more recent study, though, questioned whether this link exists at all. The researchers assessed people’s symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as their levels of creativity, like novel thinking, everyday creativity, and creative accomplishments. But the results showed that having a mental health condition was not a strong predictor of being a creative person. And a large review that included 29 studies and 34 review articles highlighted the fact that there is not a lot of solid evidence to tie together creativity and mental illness. Despite this, the idea persists both with the general public and with researchers.
Some, though, are wondering if there could be another factor involved—like rumination. Rumination means that you are reflecting on negative feelings and events to the point where it is affecting your life. A study of college students found links between rumination and depression and links between rumination and creativity, but no association between depression and creativity. Because of this, the researchers concluded that ruminating (or self-reflecting) may be the real key that can lead to having depressed feelings and also being creative. The idea is that when people are in a more reflective state of mind they may be more likely to be creative or feel depressed.
Some researchers have pointed out other factors that could play a role. For instance, artistic communities tend to value emotional expression and may feel more welcoming to those with mood disorders.
If more well-designed studies are done, researchers may discover many other factors that affect a person's creativity and emotional well being.
Remember that there is no clear link between mood disorders and creativity. Look for ways that mood disorders affect your creativity. Work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works best for you. There are a whole range of options available. There are different forms of therapy and medicine. Getting help does not mean you will lose your creative spark. You may actually find that your personal life and your work life become richer and more fulfilling. That will keep your creativity alive.
If you have any doubts about whether you should seek treatment, just think of the many writers, painters, musicians, and other artists who are both creative and emotionally healthy.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Bailey D. The Sylvia Plath effect. Monitor on Psychology. 2003;32(10):42.
Bipolar disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/bipolar-disorder. Updated September 9, 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Bipolar disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml. Updated October 2018. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Does psychological disturbance increase creativity? Psychology today website. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201508/mood-disorders-and-creativity. Posted August 5, 2015. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Major Depressive Disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/major-depressive-disorder-mdd/. Updated April 6, 2020. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Last reviewed June 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 6/8/2020