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. Kaufman called this "the Sylvia Plath effect."
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.
If more well-designed studies are done, researchers may discover many other factors that affect a person's creativity and emotional well being.
If you are struggling with a mood disorder and are concerned about how treatment could affect you, remember that there is no clear link between mood disorders and creativity. Also, keep in mind that there are a whole range of treatment options available, like different forms of therapy, medications, and alternative approaches, such as supplements, exercise, and relaxation techniques. Treatment can also include opportunities to be creative—like participating in music therapy or art therapy. Getting help does not mean you will lose your creative spark. By working with your doctor, you may actually find that your personal life and your work life become richer and more fulfilling.
And 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:http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 17, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Bipolar disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml. Updated 2008. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Depression. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 14, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Holden C. Creativity and the troubled mind. Pendulum website. Available at: http://www.pendulum.org/articles/articles_bipolar_troubled.html. Updated December 25, 2002. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Kaufman J. The Sylvia Plath effect: mental illness in eminent creative women. The Journal of Creative Behavior. 2001;34(1):37-50.
Mood disorders. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.nmha.org/go/mood-disorders. Accessed February 15, 2016.
Self-reflection may lead independently to creativity, depression. Monitor on Psychology. 2005;36(6):13.
Verhaeghen P, Joorman J, et al. Why we sing the blues: the relation between self-reflective rumination, mood, and creativity. Emotion. 2005;5(2):226-232.
Waddell C. Creativity and mental illness: is there a link? Can J Psychiatry. 1998;43(2):166-172.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 4/2/2014