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The Link between Creativity and Bipolar Disorder

by Laura on April 5th, 2013

Today on “Heart-to-Heart with a Therapist” … 

Coffee Talk question: Which comes first? Creativity or mental illness?*

Are creative people more likely to suffer from mental health issues such as bipolar disorder (BPD) and schizophrenia, or do those with these disorders have more artistic tendencies?

A recent Swedish study showed a positive correlation between mental illness and artistic creativity. Specifically, it found that families with a history of BPD and schizophrenia are more likely to produce artists and scientists.

Now, it’s not as if I want to start running around the house waving my white hankie (thanks Deanna Shrodes for this wonderful image) … but for some of us who have, ahem, experienced mental breakdowns, knowing that mental illness may not be “all bad” … well, I admit. It is strangely comforting.

Today on Heart-to-Heart with a Therapist, I’m asking Betsy Graziani Fasbinder about this intriguing correlation.

In her novel, Fire & Water, the character Jake Bloom is a creative genius with a “scary secret”–he suffers from bipolar disorder. No one quite realizes that his wild imagination, ability to see beauty in the simplest things, and amazing passion for life have a dark side.

Truly, one’s greatest strength can be one’s greatest weakness.

The intersection of creativity and madness

Laura – What advice can you give to family members to spot when creativity and high energy turn into hypomania and mania? Is it all genetic? Are creative people more prone to bipolar, or vice versa?

Betsy – As far as the link between creativity and BPD, now there’s the question that prompted my novel, Fire & Water. There is a great deal studied and written about the connection between creativity (or even genius) and mental illness in various forms, including BPD and the ramifications of this are so intriguing.

In researching this connection I read a great deal about famous artists, inventors, musicians, writers, business leaders, etc. who suffer BPD or other emotional fragility, addiction, or mental illness. The question is, does BPD or some other mental illness or addiction “make” one more creative? Or is it the heightened sensitivities to stimuli (visual, auditory, imaginative, emotional, etc.) that make a “sensitive” individual alert and aware enough to be a creative type while it also makes them more susceptible to emotional crises?

Will sanity destroy my art?

Betsy – And the question I’ve heard from artist clients whom I’ve seen over the years is always, “If I get healthy will I still be able to create art?”

Please … do not try this at home, no matter how creative you think you are.

I found this to be true for not only those with BPD, but those who suffer anxiety and/or depression in its other forms as well. The fear of “losing the spark of creativity” is very real for these artists.

That doesn’t mean that I believe one necessarily must remain dysfunctional to be an artist, but that perhaps if they become healthier, they must access their sensitivity in a different way than functioning in their lives in an unhealthy way. This is true of addiction as well. Lots of artists have found they have a tendency toward alcoholism and other drug addiction. They fear that they won’t be able to perform or create without the drugs. But many do.

In fact, while the mania, drug high, depression, or simply high drama life might stimulate creativity in some, it also hampers the ability to follow through and execute well. Rock-and-roll artists who fall off the stage during a performance. Actors not showing up to set because of intoxication or depression. Again, is it their artistic sensitivity which makes them use drugs as a way to self-medicate? Or does the addiction and drug use itself add to the creative qualities in these people? That’s the rub, isn’t it? We can look at Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe, and countless others for examples of the fragility that came with creativity.

But there are also many creative people who do not do harm to themselves. It’s important to remember that, too.

Within the range of normal

Laura – There’s also the notion of harnessing creativity without destroying it.

For me, the not eating, not sleeping, becoming manic, I didn’t quite realize what detriment I was doing to my mind and body. Ultimately, though, the long-term effect of my breakdown was that I could no longer choreograph. Whether it was the breakdown itself or the antipsychotic drugs, or a combination, I don’t know.

But, even drug-free, my ability to choreograph at the level I’d dreamed of … was gone.

So that’s a cautionary tale, I think. Had I been more aware of my need to care for my mental health, I might have caught myself … before the ultimate downward spiral. I could have remained within the range of normal, and still had my creativity in tact.

Luckily, I’ve found some type of creative outlet in writing. But, let’s not get started on the Swedish study’s findings of the correlation between writers and mental illness, substance abuse and suicide …

*  *  *  *  *

* Not everyone who is creative goes crazy, and not everyone with mental illness is actually artistic. I get that.

Read more from Heart-to-Heart with a Therapist, Betsy Graziani FasbinderWhen a loved one has bipolar disorder.

About Betsy – In both her works of memoir and fiction, Betsy Graziani Fasbinder explores the unending complications of people living, working, and loving one another. As a practicing therapist for more than twenty years, she has been witness to the heartbreak, healing, and heroism of people from all walks of life. Fire & Water, available on Amazon, is her debut novel published by She Writes Press. Connect with her on Twitter @WriterBGF.

Van Gogh from Wikipedia. Musician and dancer images from

  1. Thanks for another insightful post about mental issues and bipolar disorder. The part about "Will sanity destroy my art?" is very relevant to the way my bipolar son feels and acts. When he's manic he feels on top of his game, is delusional and grandiose, goes through millions, and then comes down with a thump.

    My personal experience, as a recovering alcoholic, was more positive. I replaced alcohol with writing – one addiction for another, though I also became passive and not as self-confident, ambitious, and pushy as when I was drinking.

    • Laura permalink

      First, I am so sorry about your son … have you had any success with therapy or even temporary medications? I found solace in the temporary nature of medication, and with the help of a qualified professional, maybe your son can begin to regulate those ups and downs. Also, once I understood that the manic highs weren't worth the suicidal lows, I began trying to live more "in the middle." It's definitely a hard realization ot come by, and I'm so glad that you were able to replace your alcohol addition with writing! You *should* be more pushy and confident about your writing! Your book is on my to-read list!

  2. What I find so amazing in all of this is the ability (awareness, willingness, call it what you want) – to look at the condition and question the possible correlations, and to contemplate all the 'what ifs.' All too often, people are inclined to bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich.

    Richard Bandler, when he was still developing the concept of NLP, did great work with psychiatric patients by acknowledging their reality instead of just referring to it as 'insanity'.

    Great post, Laura and Betsy.

    • Laura permalink

      Yes! I love Bandler's notion of their reality as opposed to insanity. It can be very, very real, painfully so, to psychiatric patients. Until a patient can bring themselves onto a side of "shared reality," it can be hard to maintain wellness.
      Thanks so much for reading–I love you're blog, and learning more from My Rite of Passage about your life coaching work!

  3. I hear you on this. I feel the spark of creativity sometimes, stirred so deeply from within. There's nothing I can do but write when it awakes. Other times, I cannot move because of depression. I read and think, but my disjointed ideas do not gel. I cannot tie them into anything meaningful; my ideas collapse, over and over. I feel exhausted, mentally and physically. I worry that I will not ever write anything that pleases me ever again. While I write for others, I am probably my most exacting critic.

    I also wonder about the source of my creative spark. My maternal first family isn't particularly creative (or maybe they are, but haven't had the courage to express it). Perhaps some of it comes from my first father. There's no escaping the question of that Spanish legacy.

    I can also see parts of my mental illness and creativity manifest in my sons, in different ways. I am so glad to be able to support them and help them.

    • Laura permalink


      Thanks so much for sharing your struggles. Yes, depression can be SO incredibly debilitating and paralyzing–it's quite unbelievable, and it can be so hard to explain to someone who's never been "in it."

      That is so interesting about your sons — being able to help them understand that their creativity can be a positive force in their life, and it doesn't have to destroy them. For me, the key is understanding those triggers that can send me over the edge.


  4. This is very interesting.

    I actually think now that I'm in treatment for my anxiety and OCD, I'm much more creative than I used to be. Back when I was afflicted, I jumped from one activity to another. I had trouble focusing and completing projects. Now, I'm methodical and engaged and much more successful. And I'm more able to retain information. And most importantly, it's a lot more enjoyable and satisfying.

    I hope anyone who is hesitating about getting help because of worry about losing their creativity will be reassured that maybe the creativity will actually improve. :)

    • Laura permalink

      Grace — Ah ha this is an important. I think some even *believe* they are more creative, but in reality your point about having trouble focusing and actually finishing is a big one. It's more satisfying–I'm glad that you can realize this and see the fruits of your labor.

  5. Thank you so much, Laura, for featuring our conversation on your blog. Of course, I appreciate the publicity. But more than that, I so appreciate your sensitivity to this topic and the insight that you brought to the experience. I do so hope our paths can cross some time.

    • Laura permalink

      Me too! You mean pass in real life, right? :) I feel like I do know you pretty well–even though your book is a wonderful, lyric work of fiction, I can see what's important to you and understand how you think!
      Yes! I hope we can continue our conversation over coffee… real coffee…

  6. Kimberly Bain permalink

    I have am a psychiatric RN for 14 yrs and also a birthmother, I relinquishished my son in 1990 (I was 19). For these two reasons I love and appreciate your blog. Two huge issuses that need to be discussed with out shame or intolerence.

    I have been a strong advocate for people with mental illness since starting my nursing career. I have seen doctors and lawyers with psychotic episodes after a month of mania, insomnia, paranoia,etc. Showing mental illness touches all walks of life. Mania can be a rather productive and creative time, which is why some don't seek treatment right away or stop taking medications. Imagine not needing sleep, having boundless energy, feeling as though you could move mountains, until you crash.

    Mental illness runs rampant in my family. After reuniting with my son over two years ago, I culd see the signs of bipolar almost immediately. And he was self medicating, trying to get a handle on his mood swings. , he

    With the right doctor and medications, he is stablizing. So is our relationship.

    Thank you for bring two important topics to light.


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  13. To begin with, I am so sad about your child … have you had any accomplishment with treatment or even transitory pharmaceuticals? I discovered comfort in the brief way of pharmaceutical, and with the assistance of a qualified proficient, possibly your child can start to direct those high points and low points. Likewise, once I comprehended that the hyper highs weren't justified regardless of the self-destructive lows, I started attempting to live more "in the center." It's unquestionably a hard acknowledgment ot stop by, and I'm glad to the point that you could supplant your liquor expansion with composing! You *should* be more pushy and certain about your written work! Your book is on my to-peruse list!

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