We have all heard the stories that relate artistic genius to mental illness. From Van Gogh and Rachmaninoff to Hemingway and Plath, the connection seems almost a given. Indeed, it is widely suggested that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. The idea of the suffering artist has been romanticized through books (The Bell Jar, I Know this Much is True) and movies (Pollack, At Eternity’s Gate), leading the general public to attribute artistic ability to a mental disorder. The anecdotal evidence is compelling and captivating to the human imagination, and having been so often cited that it is a common truism within the culture without having a basis in scientific analysis.
In fact, this connection may not exist when subjected to systematic review and scientific research. Most studies have been small and done retrospectively. Additionally, outdated research methods and questions of correlation continue to cast doubt on these previous findings. A study published in 2012 revealed some connection between a diagnosis of bipolar and creative professions, and writers who had relatives with particular psychiatric diagnoses (Kyaga et al). A single scientific study is not adequate to substantiate these claims.
Any relationship between creativity and mental illness remains far from clear and more systematic investigations are needed. But creativity is self affirming and motivating and adds meaning to life. Van Gogh felt most creative when he was less symptomatic, and Rachmaninoff credited psychotherapy with his ability to flourish as a creative composer. At Rose Hill Center, we encourage residents to follow creative pursuits while simultaneously engaged in therapy.
Kyaga, S., Landen, M. Boman, M., Hultman, C,. Langstrom, N., Lichtenstein, P. (2012). Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47(1), 83-90.
Stone Lombardi,K. (1997). Exploring artistic creativity and its link to madness. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Timoshin, N. (2016) Creativity and mental illness: Richard Kogan on Rachmaninoff. Psychiatric Times, 33(9).