The suicide death of Robin Williams has generated interest in the relationship between creativity and depression. No one knows the nature of Mr. William’s problems (added to them today was the revelation that he was suffering with early stage Parkinson’s disease), but the possibility of a link between “madness” and creativity is ancient and persistent. It is also controversial; some believe that making such a link romanticizes painful, potentially lethal illnesses and ignores the diversity of temperament and imagination that is essential to artistic work as a pathology.
The evidence for such a link, however, especially between bipolar disorder and creativity, is strong and growing. Many biographical studies, as well as studies of living artists, writers, and musicians have found higher rates of mania, severe depression, and suicide in creative individuals. First-degree relatives (that is, a parent, offspring or sibling) of creative people with bipolar disorder or depression also have elevated rates of both mood disorders and creative accomplishment.
In the past five years alone there have been four large studies (one that reported on 20,000 individuals and three others, each of which studied more than 700,000 individuals), that found that those with bipolar illness were disproportionately likely to be overrepresented in creative occupations; so too were their first-degree relatives.
Additionally, the first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia, although not those with schizophrenia, were more likely to be in creative occupations.
Mood, temperament, behavioral and cognitive factors associated with bipolar illness can, in some people, make them more creative by increasing the fluency and originality of their thinking, as well as by increasing risk-taking, ambition, energy, exuberance and a desire to create meaning from suffering and chaos.
It must be emphasized that most creative people do not have a mental illness and most people who have mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, are not unusually creative. It is rather that there is a disproportionate rate of mood disorders, especially bipolar disorder, in creative individuals.
Untreated bipolar disorder is a painful illness that is associated with a very high rate of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide.
It is a common illness and it usually first hits at a young age. Fortunately, treatment works and allows people to continue their creative work.
I have had bipolar illness since I was 17 years old. It is a difficult illness and it nearly cost me my life, as it does tens of thousands of people every year.
There is nothing romantic about psychosis, depression or suicide. The death of Robin Williams, who was admired and loved by so many, makes this clear.
Editor’s note: Kay Redfield Jamison is professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-author of the standard medical text on bipolar disorders and recurrent depression. She has written extensively about mood disorders and creativity and is the author of An Unquiet Mind, a memoir about her bipolar illness. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.