13 May

The relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity* is something I have spent lots of time thinking about. I know belief in a correlation has a history dating back to Aristotle, “no great genius has ever been without some madness”.

I am not completely convinced by Aristotle, but I also I know am creative and I have bipolar disorder. Coincidence?!

Here are some pertinent facts:

  • Most people who are creative do not have a mental illness. Most people with a mental illness are not creative.

  • There is a disproportionate rate of psychopathology, especially bipolar, in highly creative individuals.-Some of the symptoms of mania – our everyday baby/hypomania, not the full-on version – like lowered inhibitions, heightened sensitivity, increased productivity, flying ideas (all of which I have) can be seen as having the potential to enhance creativity.

  • HEAPS of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists have written about how these kinds of mania-associated benefits often translate for individuals into artistic ability, professional success, wittiness, talkativeness, general, erm, liveliness.

  • Some of the symptoms of depression – again, our everyday depression, not the full-on version – like heightened sensitivity, solitariness, extreme emotion, unconventionality (all of which I have) can also be seen as having the potential to enhance creativity.

  • There are HEAPS of auto/biographical accounts of eminent individuals (famous musicians, visual artists, writers, actors etc.) linking lives and work to the depressive-style traits listed above.

  • Bipolar is not all good and arty however. According to WHO it is the sixth leading ‘cause of disability’ amongst those between the ages of 15 and 44. It is a highly recurrent condition with an elevated mortality risk – around 40% of us attempt suicide. -And due to both our physically different brains and the impacts of episodes, we generally have  impaired and declining cognitive function, even when well (I have malapropism and inhibitory control issues). Sometimes we get actual brain damage.

  • The attributes previously listed come with a whole bunch of other, more brutal ones. With mania can come a dangerously elevated mood, irritability, inadequate weird speech, overlapping loud insane strings of ideas, high-risk behaviour, obnoxiousness and a complete lack of consideration and boundaries (yes, me).

  • With depression can come melancholia, insomnia, lack of appetite, a diminished interest in the world, anxiety, worthlessness, self-loathing, inability to concentrate, psychomotor agitation, self-pity, insularity, fatigue and recurring suicidal ideation (yes, me).

  • It is really common for individuals diagnosed with bipolar to have co-morbid conditions – psychiatric and/or personality and/or physiological and/or addiction. I myself have coeliacs with a diagnosed smattering of obsessive-compulsive and borderline-personality disorder traits. Sweet.

And here are some interesting things I think about:

  • Some people with bipolar disorder consider medication inhibits creativity. This might be because they have not found the ‘right’ meds; it might be a political, personal or philosophical stance; it might be a delusion resulting from the disorder itself; it might just be true. It is not true for me. In fact when my meds are working well I am more creative; able to use my bipolarness in interesting, satisfying, productive, multiple ways.

  • There is potential for confirmation bias. For example, given the discourse around madness and creativity it may be that some artists, writers etc. – unknowingly I think – invite rather than deny associations with madness and provide supporting data for this in the form of personal accounts (letters, songs etc.) Without denying the lived experiences of individuals, expressing mental and emotional anguish or being extremely eccentric is not the same as being diagnosed with a mental illness.

  • There is also circular logic about the above - 1. Creative individuals are seen (even expected?) to be appropriately mad; 2. So creative individuals see themselves as appropriately mad: 3. So they express this in their work; 4. Which reinforces the idea that creative individuals are mad, and so forth.

  • Many of those with bipolar find it difficult to get and keep jobs (I am very lucky!) Maybe their disproportionate representation in the arts is (at least partly) a result of this rather than just a creative disposition; the arts being a (potentially) less structured, adulting and high stakes profession.

  • Some theories posit that creative activity actually brings on bipolar, rather than results from it. I experience this. When I am knee-deep in an activity I often get obsessed, have energy, feel the ideas flowing. I get hypomanic. This is such an issue for me that when I am unwell I am often told by doctors to abstain from all creative goal-orientated activity. However! Hypomania can equally as often be a catalyst for wanting to undertake a creative activity, for giving me an idea Not at all confusing.

  • There are marked cultural differences in the ways bipolar disorder is exhibited, perceived and treated. There is more than one piece of research for example, that shows African individuals are more likely to present as manic; Afro-Caribbeans are more likely to present with delusions; and Caucasians more likely to present with suicidal thoughts and actions. There is also the seeking and efficacy of non-Western interventions; and general systemic and diagnostic bias and power. 

So what does all this complexity mean when considering the bipolar- creativity relationship? Fucked if I know. Is the fact that I think about this stuff, write about it and share my ponderings ACTUALLY EVIDENCE of my bipolar creativity?! Too meta, makes my head hurt.

Basically I know am creative and I know have bipolar disorder. And that is all I can know for sure.

*Yes I know I have conflated 'creativity' and 'artistic' but in this post it doesn't matter. I've written more about this distinction here.

* The email will not be published on the website.