Examining the Link between Creativity and Illness

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster

Content Warning: Suicide, Bipolar Disorder

“I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature.”

The Scream is an iconic modern painting. Artist Edvard Munch described the moment that inspired the piece in the quote above. Scholars have theorized about Munch’s supposed mental illness and his anxiety, which caused this vision that inspired the piece. If there is a connection between creativity and mental illness, did artists like Munch use creativity as an outlet, or was their creativity caused by mental illness? Did their mental illnesses alter their perception, allowing them to create art like The Scream?

Edvard Munch. Vincent Van Gogh. Sylvia Plath. Virginia Woolf. Jim Morrison. Robin Williams. All of these people fit a certain label society has observed throughout history: the tortured artist.
Recent large-scale studies have shown a link between creativity and mental illness, which means that when I started researching for this topic, I was met with a barrage of articles triumphantly announcing that the association is valid. I have included links to some of these articles at the end of my article.

In recent times, people have become enamored with the idea of the tortured artist, and have used this idea to fuel speculation about famous people from the past. According to Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Dr. Albert Rothenberg, “Psychiatric diagnoses of eminent people have been derived not from clinical sources but from general and popular biographies revealing apparent clay feet of creative heroes, unproven gossip and hearsay, and a field called pathography, in which both literary and psychological analysts describe correlations between artists’ psychological constitutions and pathological elements they see in subject matter or characters.” Dr. Rothenberg explains that people are very quick to make assumptions about mental illness based on subjective and even somewhat violent ideas about the inspiration of works by the people they want to believe fit the “tortured artist” trope.

I wonder if this is because it makes a better story than to say someone is just a very creative individual. Even when the details are not particularly relevant, I’ve heard people (in academic settings) consistently bring up gossipy accounts of tragic incidents from artists’ lives. I haven’t heard a discussion about Sylvia Plath in which her famous suicide is not brought up (and laughed about). It’s very disruptive to hear about an artist’s nervous breakdown in the middle of a discussion of their artwork, yet people seem to find it far more interesting to attribute Munch’s painting to a hallucinogenic anxiety attack than saying “he just felt like it.” It is also otherizing whenwe speak for the artists, saying that their work was caused by their altered perception and mental processing. Just because someone created something amazing doesn’t mean that that person had to be mentally ill to do so, and on the other hand, mental illness doesn’t always significantly affect creative output.

In my classes, I’ve also noted that many people speak differently when we explore the works of people who have well-known accounts of mental illness and those who don’t. I hear words such as, “disturbed,” “hallucinogenic,” “conflicted” and “unstable,” among others. In the contexts I’ve heard them, I didn’t think they were fair to say, since the words were only used in response to famous artists’ struggles with mental illness—again, struggles that didn’t necessarily significantly affect their creative output.

Writing off creativity as a symptom of mental illness is more than that scientifically-studied connection I mentioned earlier. From Dr. Rothenberg’s Psychology Today article, “…both creativity and mental illness involve deviations, sometimes fairly extreme ones, from normative modes of thought. Symptoms of mental illness differ from normal thinking and behavior, and creativity requires special or uncommon capacities. But there are sharp differences in effects; mental illness symptoms—compulsions, obsessions, delusions, panic attacks, depression, and personality disorders deviate in stereotyped and frequently banal ways, whereas creativity involves novel and rich results.” Creative geniuses are at the fringes of the population, in that they are notable and uncommon. Despite mental illness’ prevalence in society, the stigma and otherizing surrounding mental illness contributes to the misconception that those who are mentally ill— Munch, Van Gogh, and company— are rare and extreme cases.

Of course, Munch and Van Gogh made art which expressed their emotions. Munch was an Expressionist, and Van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist-- both movements placed heavy emphasis on emotion. The same can be said of writers such as Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe, whose genre of poetry demanded a focus on emotion. It seems strange, then, to assert that these creative individuals focused so intensely on emotion only because they were mentally ill.

The romanticization of mental illness is another alarming trend relating to this tortured artist dichotomy. If people say that you can only create masterpieces if you are mentally ill, this discourages help-seeking and treatment because people believe that will “dull” creativity. In the end, is it worth it to have respite from suffering caused by mental illness (assuming it even causes that degree of suffering, which it might not for everyone) at the alleged sake of creativity?

The last issue I would like to bring to your attention is how bipolar disorder is constantly used in the context of this topic. Bipolar disorder, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is, “a chronic mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar have high and low moods, known as mania and depression, which differ from the typical ups and downs most people experience.” There are links to more information at the end of this article. Manic episodes have symptoms which people associate with productivity and creativity, but some scholars believe that artists and other creative professions affected by bipolar disorder create most of their work in the periods between episodes of mania and depression. Studies have also found that a huge percentage of people in creative fields have mood disorders, especially bipolar, though there is some dispute over the reason for this. Again, though there is still much uncertainty about the particulars of mental illness and the brain, it is still not appropriate to make blanket assumptions such as the ones explored earlier about them.

Dr. Rothenberg worded it better, “A common claim is that extreme euphoria and productivity are features of both creative work and bipolar illness. With the illness, however, these features are involuntary, devoid of judgment, and distorted, whereas creative artists’ productivity is purposeful, and euphoria results almost always from exceptional accomplishment. Suffering is an intrinsic component of mental illness but, despite traditional romantic beliefs about creative people, such disruption seldom contributes directly to creative inspiration. Suffering may come from all-too-frequent lack of recognition and its consequences, neither a direct cause nor an effect of mental illness.”

Whatever researchers and historians say--or don’t say--there is never a reason to use alleged mental illness to qualify a person’s creativity or artistic work. Even if there is a link between mental illness and creativity, a claim which is unclear due to the sketchy research and unfounded conjecture, blanket statements about this “link” only serve to romanticize mental illness and discredit the talents of those who fit the “tortured artist” trope.