Creativity and Mental Health

October 1, 2021

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”

Vincent Van Gogh

Although most mental health disorders are called “illnesses,” which has a negative connotation, some positives do come from them. Throughout time, there has been speculation that creativity and mental health might be linked. Not only recently, however, is the theory genuinely being tested.

Many creatively gifted people throughout history have been known to have an underlying mental health illness. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Winston Churchill all had mental health conditions, that although paralyzing to some, helped their creative juices flow, or did they?

Lumping all Mental Illnesses Together is a Problem

The link between creativity and mental health, according to science, is only due to case studies, unproven hearsay, and gossip. But still, the controversy about the correctness rages on. Part of the reason why many believe in a link is that both creativity and mental illness involve a deviation from the norm. People who are mentally ill differ in their thought processes. And, in the same respect, creativity involves people thinking outside of the norm.

But if that were the only basis for concluding that the two are somehow related, analyzing the theory leads you to see that the two are inherently different. Mental illness has the effect of things like delusions, compulsions, obsessions, depression, personality disorders, and panic attacks. Creativity differs because it is a way of thinking that results in rich and novel ideas.

Pop Culture Extrapolated Fairly?

The events of Van Gogh cutting off his own ear or Kurt Cobain’s suicide are just two of the many antidotes that persist in creating a link between the tortured person and the artist within. But there are many problems with the logical conclusion that their mental illness in some fostered their creativity. First, you can’t lump mental illness into one category and then ask globally if all people with various sorts of mental illnesses have a commonality.

Persistent depression, lack of motivation, low energy, and trouble with communicating are all symptoms of mental illness that would impede creativity. While other mental disorders like irrationality, intense focus, risk-taking, and mania could, in theory, could enhance novice thoughts and expression. So concluding that all mental illness enhances creativity would be a great leap to make.

One of the biggest problems with linking the two is that there is no clear definition of creativity. And also, there is no clear way to measure it. For instance, one study used a person’s work occupation as an assumption of their creativity. Other faults found in the studies were interviewers not being blind to the objective of the study or using small sample sizes. When dealing with a small sample, it is hard to extrapolate to the general population.

Even if there is a Link – There is no Hint of Causality

Even if you choose to believe that the link between creativity and mental illness is proven; it says nothing about causality. One study found that writers with Bipolar Disease were more creative. But the conclusion only question begs if the writers chose their occupation because they were more creative? Or, did they find their job because it was difficult for them to find any gainful employment in another capacity due to their mental health condition? 

Two other studies are often cited as proof of a link between creativity and mental health. The first was examined in a book called An Unquiet Mind. But the entire study was based purely on interviews.

And there were only 47 participants in the study and no “control group.” The researcher did find a surprisingly high level of mental illness in the people they interviewed. But when you take into account the small sample size, it is hard to extrapolate to the general population.

Another study was done by Arnold Ludwig, who studied the biographies of over a thousand celebrities searching for signs of mental illness. What he concluded was that various professions have different problem patterns. The problem with his work is that although he was using famous people like Winston Churchill and Amelia Earhart, they weren’t necessarily known for their creativity. Again, the problem with strictly defining “creativity” in one sense, continues to muddle any real and concrete resolution.

Collage of mixed media patterns/artworks

With so Little Evidence, Why Has the Theory become Truth for Many?

Studying mental illness linked to celebrity or prominence is nothing new. It has been a source of focus since before the 1900s. But with no telltale conclusion or even compelling evidence, why does the theory persist? The biggest reason is rationality. It makes sense that people who think in variant ways, or experience bursts of energy like in mania, would breed creative thought. 

Other people think that mental illness and creativity have a much more complicated link. Some insist that being mentally ill allows people to explore outside of normal reason – hence creatively. But once their mental illness surges, their creativity drops back to normal. Depression would undoubtedly stop the motivation to be creative, or would it? Many famous people, such as Sylvia Plath, use their sad thoughts to inspire their words on paper.

Some of us like to believe that it is in the moment of our deepest, darkest despair where we allow our minds to create potential and possibilities. It is in madness, some believe, where we allow creativity to flow without hesitation. And it is those vivid stories like Sylvia Plath committing suicide or Vincent Van Gogh cutting off an ear that remains vivid in our memories, and tend to override what is scientifically tested.

The Danger of Believing in a Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

The problem with believing there is a link between mental illness and creativity is that some people of celebrity or prominence don’t get the help they need because they think it will somehow impede their creative allotment.

They are afraid that if they take steps to overcome their mental illness, they will lose the parts of themselves that are great. Or, what about the person who has a mental illness and finds no heightened sense of creativity. Will it only further lead them to feel bad about who and what they are?

Ultimately, the notion of a link might persist because it is comforting to think that mental illness has an upside and that the suffering is for a reason to both the person and humanity.

It might also be comforting to those who aren’t creative or possess genius. If we believe that it is only born out of pain, then there is a price to pay. And, therefore, those of us who don’t have it, feel better about not possessing something that requires sacrifice.

Science might be better served to look at different mental disorders on their own instead of using all mental illness. It would be like lumping all physical illnesses together and then saying they all have the same effect on people. Mental illnesses differ significantly from one to the next. And, therefore, need different examination for the uniqueness that they present to those suffering from them. 

Share This