Creativity is often connected to mental illness, Swedish research has found, confirming a widely-held belief. Writers appear to be most susceptible, with a raised risk of anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, unipolar depression and substance abuse; they’re also twice as likely to kill themselves when compared to the general population.
So is it time we began focusing on the more positive aspects of psychiatric disorders – the fact that schizophrenia may enable a painter to produce unique images, or bipolar disorder give a poet the drive to write? It seems largely true that great works of art and literature are rarely the products of balanced, unruffled minds (wandering around the recent Munch exhibition at Tate Modern was a stark reminder of this). Creative people are usually very sensitive; this often goes hand-in-hand with empathy and imagination. But it also tends to mean you feel things very intensely, hence the risk of depression, anxiety, alcoholism and other disorders.
But there is a risk of glamourising mental disorders. Let’s not forget many of these illnesses can grind you down so you can barely lift your head off the pillow, let alone pen a poem. Much time can be wasted drinking, worrying obsessively or trying to find the energy to brush your teeth. The musician Kristin Hersh says of her bipolar disorder: “I hated the connection between mental illness and art. I couldn’t stand that you had to be sick in order to create beauty, or confused to create truth. It made no sense. It was a huge relief to be essentially cured.” I wonder how many talented writers/painters/musicians would swap their gifts for peace of mind?