Mental Illness: Don’t Throw Out the Good With the Bad

New paper says that creativity linked to some mental illness should be embraced

The manuscript for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (Photo: Ian Waldie: Getty Images)

Nov 26, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness has been well-documented. Now a new study confirms that bipolar disorder is found more commonly among people in artistic or scientific professions.

In fact, the authors of the study note successful authors and artists may have risen to the top of their professions in part due to their mental illnesses. The study suggests society should value and safeguard the positive characteristics that may accompany some psychiatric disorders.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, examined data from 1.2 million Swedish psychiatric patients and their relatives over 40 years. They found that bipolar disorder—a mood disorder that features moods that fluctuate between extreme highs and lows—is more common among people who are scientists, researchers, dancers, photographers, authors and artists.

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Schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and substance-abuse disorders were more common among writers. Authors were also found to be 50 percent more likely to take their own lives compared to people in the general population. The study was published online recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Genetics may play a strong role between creativity and mental illness. The researchers found that the relatives of people with mental illness were more likely to be in creative professions.

Creativity in mentally ill people if often celebrated—the work of Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven and playwright Eugene O'Neill comes to mind. But even though creative endeavors typically enhance wellbeing, the healthcare profession has rarely taken the view that some aspects of mental illness may be beneficial, the author of the study, Simon Kyaga, of the Karolinska Institute, told TakePart.

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Instead, mental illness is seen as black or white, a distinction that "might miss adaptive characteristics in people with mental disorders," he says.

"However this does not mean that these patients are 'not ill' and should not be treated," Kyaga adds. "It simply means that doctors need to take into account a broader perspective on patients' symptoms and situations when recommending treatment."

A more sophisticated approach to treatment would consider all aspects of the illness, he says. Traditionally, the treatment of mental illness constitutes an attempt to subdue all aspects of the illness. But that could mean extinguishing an individual's creativity and the enjoyment and fulfillment that comes from it.

"It is therefore essential to combine knowledge from large clinical trials with individual information on the patient seeking help," says Kyaga, a doctoral student in the department for medical epidemiology and biostatistics. "This probably calls for a more individualized approach to treatment."

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More research is needed on how to best treat the negative aspects of mental illness while preserving positive characteristics, such as the effects of various medications on creativity, he says. Such an approach would require more intensive work between doctors and their patients than currently takes place.

This approach would involve "continuously monitoring effects as well as side effects and choosing medication and psychotherapeutic interventions that best suits the individual patient," Kyaga says.

The scientific pursuit on the link between creativity and mental illness might even reveal something about the biological underpinnings of the disease, he says.

Question: Are there some positive aspects to mental illness? Tell us what you think in the comments.