Many famous creatives have led lives touched by bipolar disorder. It’s only natural to wonder: Is there a connection between creativity and this mental health condition?
Ongoing research traces bipolar disorder to a complicated blend of environmental and genetic factors. The potential to express a high degree of creativity may also be, at least in part, down to our genes.
So, what’s the connection between the two? Does bipolar disorder really make you more likely to be highly creative?
Studies have shown that people with bipolar I disorder are more creative on average than their peers, and are overrepresented in the arts and humanities. However, those managing bipolar disorder aren’t the only ones with creative achievements.
Romanticizing the “mad genius” myths surrounding bipolar disorder can also be harmful, and have negative consequences on your wellbeing and productivity.
Bipolar disorder can feel overwhelming, but it’s highly treatable. It’s entirely possible to manage your creativity in healthy ways while also supporting your holistic wellness with a support network and treatment plan.
A number of well-known creative professionals live with bipolar disorder. A recent CBS News Report mentions a few public faces with this mental health condition:
- Mariah Carey
- Demi Lovato
- Russell Brand
- Catherine Zeta-Jones
- Carrie Fisher
Other historical figures, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, have been speculated to suffer from bipolar disorder, previously called “manic depression.”
It’s often suggested that the intense shifting moods that those managing it experience can contribute to a more productive creative life, and lead to great art.
Yet much of this is heavily, and sometimes harmfully, romanticized.
Busting bipolar disorder myths
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that
You can check out our breakdown of the most common (and dangerous) misconceptions about this condition, including the tendency towards creativity:
“Bipolar genius traits” are not part of a clinical definition of bipolar disorder, which each individual experiences differently. But knowing the features of bipolar disorder may help explain what some people see as heightened creativity.
Bipolar disorder is a diagnostic umbrella that includes bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. Most people think of bipolar disorder as involving “highs and lows,” where an individual might experience manic episodes of high energy between periods of what’s called euthymia, or depression.
Diagnosis for bipolar disorders is complicated, but the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) focuses on the presence or absence of three kinds of episodes or symptoms:
- Mania: characterized by being in good spirits with high energy, with behaviors like racing thoughts, little need for sleep, increased activity, and increased risky behavior
- Hypomania: involves the same symptoms as mania but less severe and for a shorter period of time
- Depression: signaled by feelings of despair, lack of interest in pleasurable activities, fatigue, restlessness, or suicidal thoughts
Often, people associate periods of mania or hypomania with the creative aspect of bipolar disorders. Manic episodes are still misunderstood as being merely positive, productive periods. In fact, they can be uniquely exhausting and cause reckless, harmful behavior.
There is mixed evidence of a connection between bipolar disorders and creativity. But experts are taking dynamic approaches to explore a possible link.
Researchers do know that bipolar disorders have a strong genetic component, with a
This has led many
Those who carry the genes but do not have clinical symptoms of bipolar disorder may reap these benefits, while those with more severe expressions of those genes experience a negative influence on creative accomplishment. Researchers call this “shared vulnerability,” where the genetic variance may manifest as creativity or clinical diagnosis.
2010 articleexplained that a review of biographical information of over 1,000 creatives found those diagnosed with bipolar disorder were overrepresented in the arts and humanities. Common jobs included poet, musician, and visual artist. The prevalence of bipolar disorder in this group was 10 times that of the general population.
2019 studyfound that successful academics known for their creative accomplishments were more likely to have first or second-degree relatives with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia than the general population. The researchers concluded creativity and risk for mental health disorders were linked by a shared vulnerability.
- another study from 2015 measured creativity among people with bipolar I disorder compared to a control group. Those in the bipolar I disorder group did not register higher scores for creativity than the control, but did demonstrate a greater variation in kinds of creative accomplishment.
2019 pilot studyof a small group of people at risk for bipolar disorder found they scored significantly higher on the Barron-Welsh Art Scale (BWAS), a scientific measurement of creativity. The researchers concluded bipolar disorder is associated with creativity but not necessarily creative accomplishment.
People living with bipolar disorder may associate creativity with symptoms of self-described “creative mania.” Manic and hypomanic episodes may involve high levels of euphoria and energy, but also feelings of disconnection and reckless behavior — such as irresponsible financial decisions, angry outbursts, and high-risk sexual encounters.
People who have experienced mania describe feeling invincible. But once the mania is over, they experience a crash into depression, or reckoning with the consequences of damaged relationships.
The mood stabilizer lithium and other medications are prescribed to
However, productive creativity and stability are fully possible for people with bipolar disorder!
As Ellen Forney explained in her 2019 Ted Talk: “Having once been so scared that I would lose my entire sense of self, what I discovered is that a stable life — a balanced life — actually feels like me.”
Creativity is hard to define, but many think it has to do with thinking differently, being a bit more “outside the box.”
People with bipolar disorder have unique experiences that may offer them different emotional and intellectual perspectives on the world. Although many associate heightened creativity with mania, it is possible to enhance or explore your creativity while also supporting your wellness and maintaining a treatment plan for bipolar disorder.
Research into the link between creativity and bipolar disorder is a growing, active field. But so far data does show those managing bipolar disorder are overrepresented in creative professions, and often attain high levels of accomplishment in the arts.
There are plenty of educational resources available if you want to learn more about a bipolar disorder diagnosis, or gather information about any symptoms you’re experiencing.
Remember: You’re not alone. Educating yourself and reaching out for help are the first steps to getting the support network and treatment you deserve.
Learning from others’ experiences
To learn about an example of living a creative life with bipolar disorder, check out this podcast with Ronald Braunstein, a Juilliard-educated conductor who created the world’s first orchestra for people living with mental illness.