Creativity and Mental Illness – An Exercise in Clarification

Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive at the Mental Health Foundation:

"It has long been presumed that there exists some kind of link between creativity and mental illness. But the 'tortured genius' and 'mad artist' stereotypes that are so frequently deployed are both false and unhelpful and only serve to obscure the complexity of this issue, an issue that has recently been resurrected by a large scale study conducted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

According to the official press release from the Karolinska's website, which one expects would form the basis of any media report of the study, this new research shows that 'People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population'. Now this statement appears to be pretty unequivocal, but you may notice a certain faintness to the assertion: why was the singular 'mental illness' used and not the plural 'mental illnesses'? The answer is simple. What the study actually showed was that only one 'mental illlness', bipolar disorder, is more common in creative professions. Indeed, if the time is taken to read the article in full, it actually suggests that those in creative professions are much less likely to suffer from mental illnesses. As the report states:

'individuals holding creative professions had a significantly reduced likelihood of being diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, or of committing suicide' [emphasis mine]

With that dealt with, let's go back to the statement that people in creative industries are more likely to suffer from 'certain mental illness' (i.e. bipolar disorder).  We first need to clarify exactly what is meant by 'creative industries' in this particular context. According to the criteria in the Karolinska study, creative industries are defined as 'artistic or scientific professions'. This clearly encompasses a huge range of jobs, not all explicitly or even implicitly creative. Indeed, in popular culture science is often seen as in conflict with art, or at the very least as a clear and completely distinct discipline. It takes an astronomical leap of the imagination to say that a ballet dancer is in the same industry as a nuclear physicist but this is precisely what the article asserts. The study also makes the grave mistake of conflating art with craft, skill with creativity. To put it another way, an accomplished actor or musician doesn't necessarily need to be particularly creative in a way that a playwright or composer needs to be. So while one can assert that people diagnosed with bipolar are more likely to work in an 'artistic or scientific profession' one may not assert that people diagnosed with bipolar are more likely to be creative people, let alone that this bipolar is causally linked to  creativity.

The main finding of the Karolinska study, or at least the finding seized upon by the media, is that writers were more likely to suffer from mental illnesses. Once again, there is a problem with definition - the term 'writer' is used loosely and is conflated with the word 'author'. Thus, a junior reporter on a local newspaper is seen to be the same as a Man Booker Prize winning author, simply because they both write for a profession.

The study shows that 'creative professions were more common in the relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa and, to some extent, autism' but all this suggests is the existence of a common factor that leads to both mental illness and creativity, a commonality that pre-exists both. If there is an association it is certainly not causal, or at least no convincing research has shown that it is causal. Let's be absolutely clear about this: There may well be something, we can call it 'X', that underpins mental illness and creativity but one does not cause the other.

You may well ask why I have gone to such trouble to clarify what this new research actually says. Misleading news stories or unclear press releases can reinforce stigma and stereotypes and a central role of the Mental Health Foundation is to fight against this. There are certainly people with mental illnesses who do believe it has helped them to be creative - but against that we know of the immense distress it can cause as well.  Mental illness may have ignited some creative spark in Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and inspired them to write so well - but they both suffered throughout their lives, lives which ended in suicide, Plath when she was just 30. Anyone who has been in the midst of a serious mental illness will know that it is not a good place to be if one is to write vivid and perceptive literature – the debilitating pain can make it a struggle to even read a single  line of prose, let alone put pen to paper and craft a narrative. So it would be very unwise to forget the intense distress these kinds of illnesses can cause, or see 'mental illness' as simply the flipside of a creative mind, the price you pay for being an artist. Anything that trivialises mental illness like this has the potential to be unhelpful and even dangerous.

So can we take any positives out of this study? Well, we know from our own research, and from the findings of others, that creativity and the arts promote well being and that many people with mental health problems value  the arts as a self-management tool promoting their recovery. But importantly, this art therapy benefits all, not just those who are thought to have a creative streak. The arts can be both cathartic and therapeutic, providing a way to explore oneself – to externalise and make sense of negative thoughts and anxieties. They can also be a way to express things that are difficult to express verbally. In addition to this research has also shown that service users value the opportunity to reframe themselves as artists rather than service users and that sharing their insights help them not only to tackle self-stigma but to feel they are contributing to society.

The Karolinska Institute's study does have some interesting results. But studies such as these should be used to look at new ways to treat mental illnesses and not simply to feed the fatuous myth of the tortured genius."

Published 30 October 2012 |
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