Posted by: jedwardswright | February 23, 2011

Are Depressed Individuals More Creative?

While reading an article about Abraham Lincoln and his struggle with depression, I was encountered the assertion that “Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”[i]

The notion that depressed people have unique insight and enhanced creativity has been around since at least the 19th century. Creative icons such as Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Emily Dickinson, who all are thought to have had depression, are cited as examples of this phenomenon.  Is there any evidence to support this theory, or is it statistically inevitable that many artists would struggle with this mental health condition?

Kay Redfield Jamieson Ph.D., a Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of medicine, not only specializes in the study of bipolar disorder, she herself has the condition. One of her areas of focus is the study of creativity and mood disorders.  In her book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Jamieson states, “Recent research strongly suggests that, compared with the general population, writers and artists show a vastly disproportionate rate of manic-depressive or depressive illness” although she cautions “clearly, however, not all (not even most) writers and artists suffer from major mood disorders.”[ii]

Another academic who has studied the relationship between creativity and depression is Arnold Ludwig, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Brown University. Ludwig examined the biographies of one thousand outstanding individuals from the past, and published his findings in a book called The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy.[iii] Ludwig investigated different subtypes of creative expression and found that certain types of creativity tended to match particular patterns of personal and mental difficulties. Overall, however, he concluded “that members of the artistic professions or creative arts as a whole…suffer from more types of mental difficulties and do so over longer periods of their lives than members of the other professions.”[iv]

Both experts observed that while the experience of suffering through depression or mania may inspire creativity, the actual creative process tended to take place when the artist was in a more stable state of mind.[v] A panel of four highly creative people with bipolar disorder agreed with this opinion on the CBC Radio’s program The Current, as all had found they were the least productive when their mental health was poor.[vi]

One dissenting voice comes from Albert Rothenberg, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, who wrote Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes.[vii] Rothenberg takes issue with the methodology of his peers, asserting that biographies, as second-hand sources, are inadequate for the purpose of diagnosis. Instead, he has interviewed contemporaries, outstanding individuals from creative fields, particularly Nobel Prize Laureates and recipients of literary awards. He maintains that the creative process derives from “healthy processes” and that the “suffering artist” stereotype is simply a myth. He agrees however with the idea that creative people who are mentally ill can use these “rational processes” in times when they are well. Still, his position is that the relative percentage of creative people with mental health conditions has been overstated.[viii]

In my opinion, one of the limitations of Rothenberg’s approach is that by limiting his studies to live subjects, he has automatically eliminated persons who have committed suicide up to that point. It also seems reasonable to me that the many Nobel prize-winning scientists he included in his research may have skewed his findings, since these folks are not artistically creative in the same sense as writers and musicians, and they are particularly adept at maintaining disciplined work over a long period of time, which would make them unlikely candidates for mental health problems.

In my own experience,  during major depressive periods I have sought refuge in the cathartic experience of writing poetry, but my mental health issues were definitely detrimental when it came to more technical writing (e.g. essays for my university studies) where more rational and organizational skills were required.  In general, the more fact-based the material, the more mentally healthy I need to be to successfully complete the project. My struggles with depression motivate me to spill out my pain in written form, while at the same time limiting my ability to perform other practical tasks.

Is it egotism that causes me to prefer the idea that my mental health condition gives me a creative advantage over more psychologically healthy members of the population? Am I seeking consolation in this idea to help balance out all the areas of endeavor where my illness has put me at a disadvantage?

Regardless, the long list of distinguished individuals with depression who have contributed to our world should be an encouragement to us. Having Major Depressive Disorder does not necessarily mean that we will be unsuccessful or leave no lasting legacy. Instead, we should seek to develop whatever creative powers we possess as a potential personal strength. Could it be that there is actually a positive aspect to this otherwise devastating condition? Let’s hope so!

An article about Kay Redfield Jamieson’s lecture “Madness, Moods and Creative Achievement”

[i] Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  “Lincoln’s Great Depression.” Atlantic Magazine, October 2005.

[ii] New York:  Free Press (Macmillan), 1993, p. 5.

[iii] New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

[iv] Ludwig, Greatness, p.4.

[v] Fire, p.6; [v] Mental Health Special, Part 3, “Creative and Mental Illness.”

[vi] CBC Radio

[vii] Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

[viii] CBC Radio


  1. I don’t know where I stand on artists being more/less prone to mental illness. I can’t say I’m more or less creative than others. I know I have a lot of hobbies that are crafty . . . but I don’t know that that makes me ‘artistic.’ So I don’t know where I fall within that. What I do know is I clicked on that link of famous people w/ depression . . . and oh. I sat here and cried. For some of them I couldn’t find any reference to it on their ‘page,’ while others it was mentioned. But the number of people on there . . . if only they would all speak out about it . . . how far we could go. I’m bookmarking that link for future reference. Thank you, again.

  2. Whether or not artists are more likely to have mental illness, or mentally ill people are more likely to be artists, it is an interesting stereotype worth examining. I would tend to think that being “crafty” is being creative.
    I have sometimes thought that we need an international day for all of us with depression to stand up and tell the world, because if we did it together (and there are SO many of us) it would be a lot less scary. It would decrease the stigma for sure.
    Do celebrities and persons in important positions have a responsibility to speak out about their mental illnesses, or are they just as entitled as we are to privacy when it comes to their health? I admire those who have had the courage and conviction to come forward, but I can imagine when they are already gossiped about so much it wouldn’t be any easier for them than it is for the rest of us.

  3. I know you’re right about their privacy. But I crave that acknowledgment that I’m not ‘crazy’ so much, that I am not alone in this fight, that there are thousands out there like me, that having public figures shout it from the mountain tops would mean so much. Of course, Brooke Shields did that, wrote a book about it and was nailed by another publicly. Yes, he apologized — privately. I guess nothing is going to make me happy, is it? 🙂

  4. As the former senior moderator of an online forum for people with depression with a membership now approaching 700,000, I can assure you that we are far from alone. Still, it is sad how many people I have seen write “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.”
    The situation with Brooke Shields is incredibly regrettable, but the attack on her basically came from one individual, which makes me hope that others were more supportive.
    Celebrities who have gone public about their depression include actor John Cleese, director Woody Allen, football star/broadcaster Terry Bradshaw, singer Marie Osmond, actress Patty Duke, singer/musician Billy Joel (who survived a suicide attempt), actor Hugh Laurie, actress/singer Gwyneth Paltrow, musician Brian Wilson, actor Owen Wilson and actor Jim Carrey, among others.
    I would assume that most of the celebrities (who are alive, anyway) have stated publicly that they have depression or they wouldn’t be on the list, but I do see that it is not always mentioned on their Wikipedia pages.

  5. Oh, Jodi, I cannot thank you enough for giving me that list of celebrities. Knowing tha such public figures HAVE gone public, even if I didn’t hear, means so much! I’m in rich company, at least! *laughing*

  6. Step by step (and celebrity by celebrity) we are making progress!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: