An Evolving Picture of Artists and Mental Health
Is there an association between mental health and creativity?
Posted March 22, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- In a 2008 study researchers concluded that there appears to be a strong association between creativity and mood disorders.
- In a 2023 study, researchers found that psychopathology is more common in the arts than in the sciences.
- A new study shows a negative association between math and mental illness and a positive one between language and schizophrenia/bipolar disorder.
John Green is a celebrated author who lives in Indianapolis, where I reside most of the time. Two of his many books have been made into movies, and a third is on the way. His notoriety makes him the subject of conversation at cocktail parties.
One specific topic often discussed is his struggle with mental illness. Green was identified with obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 14. He also suffers from anxiety. These diagnoses readily lead to discussing what part mental illness plays in creativity. More than that, it is a subject of vital interest to collectors who interact with artists on a personal or secondary level and, certainly, when dealing with a financial transaction.
Studies Addressing the Issue
In 2008, Nancy C. Andreasen published “The Relationship Between Creativity and Mood Disorders.” She cited previous work related to this subject, including her own. She concluded, “There appears to be a strong association between creativity and mood disorders. However, the overall literature supporting this association is relatively weak.”
Some years later, Dean Keith Simonton tackled the problem in his 2023 paper “Teaching Creativity: Current Findings, Trends, and Controversies in the Psychology of Creativity.” He noted that psychopathology is more common in the arts than in the sciences. In the arts, mental pathology is higher in poetry than in any other discipline. Of interest is that creative novelists scored between the mentally ill and normal on the clinical scales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
Even more relevant is the work by Rajagopal et al. (2023), “Genome-Wide Association Study of School Grades Identifies Genetic Overlaps Between Language Ability, Psychopathology, and Creativity” The researchers measured E1, which was overall school performance. They found that both E1 and educational achievement showed genetic correlates with six psychiatric disorders (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and anorexia nervosa). This suggested that the relationship between psychiatric disorders and cognitive function was similar early in life to that later in life.
The E2 measurement turned out to be more definitive. It measured language performance relative to math. The latter indicated phenotypically (the outward manifestation in an individual resulting from the expression of genes) and genetically that there was a negative correlation between math skills and the risk for most psychiatric diseases. On the other hand, they found an association between language performance and the possibility of specific disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Revisiting John Green
It would be tempting to attribute some or all of John Green’s writing ability to his OCD and possibly even his anxiety. For the present, that seems impossible. Though OCD sufferers do pay attention to detail, there has not been a definitive study that can relate the two. Green may simply be a gifted writer with incidental OCD and anxiety. Rather than the latter helping him, they may hinder him, but he can still write an engaging page of fiction.
It seems we have come full circle. Although an association was observed between psychiatric disease and creativity early on, researchers could not prove it. More recently, researchers have found a negative association between math skills and mental illness, a positive relationship between language performance, and a genetic tendency for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Andreasen, N. C. (2008). The relationship between creativity and mood disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 10(2), 251-255. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.2/ncandreasen
Simonton, D. K. (2012). Teaching creativity: Current findings, trends, and controversies in the psychology of creativity. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 217–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450444
Rajagopal VM, Ganna A, Coleman JRI, Allegrini A, Voloudakis G, Grove J, Als TD, Horsdal HT, Petersen L, Appadurai V, Schork A, Buil A, Bulik CM, Bybjerg-Grauholm J, Bækvad-Hansen M, Hougaard DM, Mors O, Nordentoft M, Werge T; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium; Mortensen PB, Breen G, Roussos P, Plomin R, Agerbo E, Børglum AD, Demontis D. Genome-wide association study of school grades identifies genetic overlap between language ability, psychopathology and creativity. Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 9;13(1):429. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-26845-0. PMID: 36624241; PMCID: PMC9829693.