Bipolar Disorder and Creative Careers: Is There Really a Link?
It's true that correlation does not equal causation. It's also true that some of the world's most innovative and creative people have been affected by bipolar disorder, from Carrie Fisher to Halsey. Psychologists and scientific researchers have been examining the link between bipolar disorder and creativity for a very long time, and while the subject is not without controversy, examining the correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity may be helpful for folks with the illness working to build a creative professional life for themselves.
What Does Science Say About Bipolar and Creativity?
The debate over a link between mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and creativity ("madness and genius," as some might say) has been going on for centuries. The classical Greek scholar Aristotle is reported to have said that
"no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness"1
and the esteemed poet Lord Byron wrote:
"We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched."2
In her 1993 book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, clinical psychologist and researcher Kay Redfield Jamison argues for the existence of a link between bipolar and creativity by examining the lives of several prominent writers, poets, and artists known or suspected of having bipolar disorder within the biological context of the illness.
A 2018 study by Cambridge University researchers that examined 300,000 subjects with either bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or unipolar depression and their relatives concluded that individuals with bipolar and schizophrenia and their immediate family members appear to be overrepresented in creative professions when compared to the general population, although a concrete biological link between mental illness and creativity remains undetermined.3
Although clinical studies suggest that a link is possible, it seems that mental illness does not cause creativity or vice versa; there are many creative people with no history of mental illness and plenty of folks with psychiatric conditions who are no more creative than the average person. Still, the amount of folks with bipolar disorder who have made a name for themselves in the arts is noteworthy. And for those of us with bipolar who aspire to a creative professional life, their stories can serve as an inspiration and as cautionary tales about the often tragic consequences of forgoing treatment.
Bipolar, Creativity, and Real-World Career Planning
As a person with bipolar disorder with a creative writing degree and dreams of becoming a bestselling author one day, the subject of mental illness and creativity is a raw spot for me. While I support continued research into a possible link between bipolar disorder and creativity and think that such a possibility is fascinating, I am also wary of the "tortured artist" trope that is often used in popular culture to glamorize mental illness.
This romanticization is dangerous on multiple fronts, not least of all because it further distorts the realities of mental illness in the popular imagination -- are people with bipolar disorder only worthy of recognition if they've sold scores of records or published groundbreaking poetry? -- and because it can prompt folks to avoid seeking psychiatric care out of fear that medication or psychotherapy may "dull" their creativity.
I can attest from my own experience that, in reality, the biggest threat to creativity is unchecked bipolar disorder that is allowed to rage however it wishes. It is very difficult to be creative when you are unemployed, riddled with debt, or suicidal.
I do believe that there is a connection between bipolar disorder and creativity, but I'm not so sure that it's biological. I'm no expert, but it seems more likely to me that creativity comes from a lifetime of experiencing intense emotions and unpredictable mood swings and the need for an outlet to express ourselves in ways that allow us to describe our reality. I know that this is true for me: I often find verbal communication difficult, especially when I'm in the middle of a mood episode, and I've always used writing as a way to convey my feelings and communicate my ideas to the world in a way that I can't always do with speech.
Did Bipolar Disorder Make Me a Writer?
In short, no -- I think that I've always known that I wanted to write and tell stories, even when I was very young -- but I'm not sure that I would have the same drive to build a career out of writing if it wasn't for my illness. It's possible that writing would have been more of a fun hobby to me instead of a calling if I didn't need it to process and untangle my internal landscape. I would prefer not to live with the highs and lows and uncertainties that come with bipolar disorder, but my drive to write and create is not something that I would trade.
What do you think -- is there a link between bipolar disorder and creativity? Do you have experience working with bipolar disorder in a creative field? Drop a line and share your thoughts with us in the comments.
1. Motto, AL, Clark, JR., The paradox of genius and madness: Seneca and his influence. Cuadernos de Filología Clásica. Estudios Latinos 1992; 2: 189 -- 200. Google Scholar
2. Lord Byron, Quotable Quotes. Goodreads. Accessed 30 January 2021.
3. Kyaga, Simon, et al., Creativity and mental disorder: Family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder. Cambridge University Press, 02 January 2018. Accessed 30 January 2021.
Rose, N. (2021, January 31). Bipolar Disorder and Creative Careers: Is There Really a Link?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/workandbipolarordepression/2021/1/bipolar-disorder-and-creative-careers-is-there-really-a-link