Hilary examines the conventional link between creativity and mental illness.

The perceived link between creativity and mental illness has existed in popular culture for many centuries. The image of a tortured artist is a stereotype we are all familiar with, but to what extent is it realistic?

According to a recent study carried out by researchers from the Karolinska Institute, Gothenburg University and Uppsaala University in Sweden, in general people in creative professions actually do not have a greater chance of suffering from a psychiatric condition than anyone else. But there was one significant exception: writers in particular were found to be more likely to suffer disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, utilized Swedish health records providing diagnoses at discharge for all hospital inpatients between 1973 and 2009.

Over one million people were identified as having been diagnosed with various mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to anorexia nervosa. The frequency of creative people (defined as anyone in an artistic or scientific occupation) among this group was then compared to that of a matched sample of ‘healthy’ people. The results showed that creative people were not more susceptible to psychiatric disorders when compared to the control sample, but that writers specifically were twice as likely to suffer from bipolar disorders and schizophrenia, and additionally had a greater chance of suffering from depression and anxiety. Substance abuse and rates of suicide were also higher for writers, and this certainly fits the tumultuous history of literary figures including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway, who all famously and tragically took their own lives.
Mark Millard, member of the British Psychological Society, asserts that the association with mental illness may provide an explanation as to the driving motivation that many creative writers posses: “Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes. Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way. There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work.” Past investigations have shown that brain scans show significant similarities between the mental pathways of schizophrenics and those who are highly creative: both lack receptors which usually filter and direct thought. Each group was found to have a lower than average concentration of dopamine receptors in the thalmus, which serves as a filter for information signals before they reach further areas of the cortex.  This uninhibited mental processing results in a striking ability to make unusual associations and original conclusions, a vital tool in the writer’s kit, but one that ultimately produces unhealthy, disturbing thoughts in schizophrenia sufferers.

But what conclusions can we draw from the latest statistics from Sweden? The difficulty is determining whether a focus on writing itself could produce mental issues, or whether psychiatric problems result in the sufferers seeking to express their world view through this creative medium.

Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga at the Karolinska Institute suggests that these findings should encourage us to alter our attitude towards mental disorders: “If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient’s illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment. In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost. In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavour to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid.”


Hilary Boden

Image by Taylor Liberato