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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Creativity: Myth vs. Reality

The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Creativity: Myth vs. Reality

There has been a longstanding belief that a connection exists between bipolar disorder (BD) and creativity. This connection has often been romanticised, with the idea of the ‘tortured genius’. With some of the most well-known artists and creative geniuses in history having bipolar disorder, including Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Ludwig van Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Judy Garland, Mariah Carey, Kurt Cobain and Kanye West, this has perpetuated the belief in a connection between bipolar and creativity.

According to Bipolar UK, 1.3 million people in the UK have bipolar, equating to one in every fifty people. Exploring this topic can help to dispel any myths surrounding bipolar disorder, and providing accurate information about the condition and the relationship between BD and creativity can help to increase public awareness of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar is a very misunderstood condition and, on average, it takes 9.5 years to receive a correct diagnosis. Many individuals with BD are misdiagnosed multiple times. With many people, including those in the medical community, not understanding bipolar, the fixation on the link between bipolar and creativity could be further adding to this lack of understanding. BD is a serious mental health condition which increases the risk of suicide by up to 20 times and can have a significant impact on an individual’s life. In this article, we are going to dispel the creativity myth and provide more accurate information about bipolar disorder.

Person seeking support for Mental health

Understanding bipolar disorder (brief overview)

Bipolar disorder (BD) is a serious, complex mental health condition that is characterised by extreme mood swings that include manic highs, known as mania or hypomania, and depressive lows. During periods of depression, the individual will likely feel very low and lethargic. They may experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness and may lose interest and pleasure in activities. Some people with bipolar experience intense feelings of worthlessness and may have thoughts of suicide. Because periods of depression are easier to recognise and can be more debilitating, it is during this phase of bipolar that more people seek medical help. Many people with bipolar are then misdiagnosed as having depression.

During periods of mania, the individual will likely feel happy, elated and hyperactive. Manic episodes are characterised by high-energy behaviour and over-activity. Someone experiencing mania may make highly ambitious plans, behave impulsively and act in ways they wouldn’t usually, such as engaging in risky sexual behaviour, spending large amounts of money and driving dangerously. Hypomania is a milder version of mania and usually lasts for a shorter time. During periods of mania, some people talk very quickly, don’t eat or sleep and become annoyed or irritated more easily. They may also engage in risky or potentially dangerous behaviours that are uncharacteristic for them.

Depressive and manic mood episodes can vary in severity and duration and can affect a person’s energy levels, behaviour, thoughts and ability to function.

There are four main types of bipolar disorder:

  • Bipolar I Disorder
    This subtype involves manic episodes that last at least seven days or are severe enough to require immediate medical attention. Depressive episodes may also occur, typically lasting at least two weeks. Some individuals may experience mixed episodes, where symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously. If left untreated, a manic episode will likely last between 3-6 months and a depressive episode will last between 6-12 months.
  • Bipolar II Disorder
    This subtype involves depressive episodes alternating with hypomanic episodes, which are less severe than manic episodes. Hypomania may still cause noticeable changes in mood, energy and behaviour, but individuals with Bipolar II Disorder typically can function relatively normally.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder (Cyclothymia)
    This subtype involves frequent mood swings that alternate between hypomania and mild depression. These mood fluctuations are less severe than those seen in Bipolar I or Bipolar II Disorder but can still significantly impact daily life.
  • Rapid Cycling
    Rapid cycling occurs when someone has four or more manic, hypomanic or depressive episodes within a 12-month period. Changes in mood may occur quickly, over days or hours. If four or more mood changes occur within a one-month period, this is known as ultra-rapid cycling.

Bipolar disorder can have a significant impact on many aspects of a person’s life, including their relationships, their education and work, their overall mental and physical health and their overall well-being. BD often requires long-term treatment, including medication, therapy and lifestyle modifications, to manage symptoms effectively and maintain stability.

The myth of the ‘tortured genius’

The historical and cultural perception of the ‘tortured genius’ associated with bipolar disorder is well-known and continually perpetuated. This perception suggests that individuals with bipolar disorder possess a unique predisposition to creativity. Their creativity is often attributed to the intense emotional experiences they have during manic phases. However, while there are known examples of artists, musicians and writers who have struggled with bipolar disorder and produced well-known creative works, the idea of the ‘tortured genius’ should be considered with caution.

Throughout history, numerous famous artists, writers and musicians have been diagnosed or associated with bipolar disorder. Below are some of the most well-known examples.

  • Vincent Van Gogh: One of the most famous artists of all time, Van Gogh is known for his vivid and emotionally charged paintings. Although he never received a bipolar diagnosis (BD was not a diagnosable condition when he lived), his disordered mood, severe depressive episodes and struggles with mental illness that culminated with him cutting off his own ear have caused many people to retrospectively diagnose him with bipolar disorder.
  • Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf is known for her groundbreaking novels and is one of the most well-known writers of the 20th century. Woolf had many symptoms that today would result in a BD diagnosis, including mood swings, severe depression, periods of mania and psychosis. Woolf committed suicide at the age of 59.
  • Judy Garland: It is widely believed that Judy Garland had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Most well-known as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Garland struggled with addiction and attempted suicide more than 20 times. People often use Judy Garland as an example of the link between BD and creativity.
  • Kanye West: Kanye West is one of the most well-known musicians of the 21st century and much of his recent media attention has been on account of his bipolar disorder. West has been in the headlines a lot due to erratic behaviour, including storming the stage at the VMA awards, running for president and ranting on social media. West has previously called his bipolar his ‘superpower’ and has referenced it in his music.
  • Selena Gomez: Selena Gomez is a famous musician and actress and is one of the most followed women on social media. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and had a stay in a psychiatric hospital before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had experienced psychosis, paranoia and suicidal thoughts before finally receiving treatment for BD.

Romanticising mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, as a catalyst for creativity suggests that suffering is a necessary ingredient for artistic genius. It perpetuates the belief that poor mental health somehow increases your creative abilities. However, this thought process overlooks the significant challenges and difficulties experienced by individuals with bipolar disorder. It also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and can discourage someone from seeking a diagnosis, appropriate treatment and support.

Additionally, not everyone with bipolar disorder is creative, nor do all creative people have bipolar disorder. Creativity is complex and is influenced by various factors, including genetics, environment, personality traits, personal choice and life experiences. While there may be instances where bipolar disorder coincides with heightened creativity, it is important to recognise that creativity is not solely dependent on the presence of BD.

Counselling a person with Bipola Disorder

The complex relationship

There are many research studies investigating the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity. Research conducted by Murray and Johnson (2010) found that bipolar disorder is significantly overrepresented in creative professions, including literary works, design, music, theatre and poetry. However, another research study conducted in 2015 found that people with bipolar disorder did not demonstrate significantly higher creativity scores, compared to people without the disorder. With researchers being unable to agree on whether creativity is associated with bipolar disorder and how significant the relationship between BD and creativity is, it is no surprise that society is confused by this relationship.

One research study conducted by Srivastava and Ketter (2010) found that personality traits and temperament traits that are commonly found in creative individuals are also commonly found in people with bipolar disorder. They suggested that this could be an important factor in explaining increased creativity in people with BD. This could indicate that it is personality traits and temperament that are more significant in creativity.

It could be that factors associated with bipolar disorder play a role in creativity. While bipolar disorder is often associated with periods of heightened creativity during manic or hypomanic episodes, the relationship between mood fluctuations and creative output is not straightforward. Several factors, including medication, therapy and coping strategies could play an important role in shaping the creative process for individuals with bipolar disorder.

Mood swings:

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings, including manic episodes marked by elevated mood, increased energy and heightened creativity, as well as depressive episodes characterised by low mood, fatigue and decreased motivation. During manic or hypomanic episodes, individuals with bipolar disorder may experience a surge in creative energy, leading to increased productivity and increased creative thinking. However, these periods of heightened creativity are often accompanied by impulsivity, erratic behaviour and difficulties maintaining focus, which can impact the quality and sustainability of creative endeavours.

On the other hand, during depressive episodes individuals may struggle with decreased energy, motivation and concentration, making it challenging to engage in creative activities. Feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and despair may further inhibit creative expression, which can contribute to periods of creative stagnation or writer’s block.

Medication:

Medication is an important part of BD treatment and plays an important role in stabilising mood, reducing the frequency and severity of mood swings and preventing relapse. Mood stabilisers are commonly prescribed to help regulate mood fluctuations and manage symptoms of mania and depression. While medication can effectively control symptoms of bipolar disorder, some individuals may experience side effects, such as mental fatigue, difficulties with attention or reduced creativity. Finding the right balance of medication to manage symptoms while protecting creative abilities can be a difficult process that requires close collaboration between patients and mental health professionals.

Treatment:

Some of the popular treatment options for BD are creative therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy and writing therapy. Engaging in these therapies can allow individuals to express themselves creatively while processing their emotions and experiences in a supportive therapeutic environment. This can also help people with BD to value creativity and engage in creative activities more frequently.

Dispelling the myth

Dispelling common myths surrounding bipolar disorder and creativity is important for creating a more accurate understanding of the condition and its impact on creative abilities.

Below are some of the common myths surrounding BD and creativity:

Myth: All people with bipolar disorder are creative.

Reality: Contrary to popular belief, not all individuals with bipolar disorder have natural creative abilities. While some people with BD may experience periods of heightened creativity during manic or hypomanic episodes, creativity is not a universal trait among everyone with bipolar disorder. Additionally, many individuals with BD may struggle with symptoms that hinder creative expression, such as depression, anxiety and cognitive difficulties.

Myth: Highly creative people probably have bipolar disorder.

Reality: While bipolar disorder may coincide with bursts of creative energy for some individuals, creativity is not solely attributable to BD itself. Many factors contribute to creative expression, including genetics, personality traits, environment, education, life experience and practice. Additionally, creativity is not just limited to artistic activities, as other forms of creativity such as problem-solving, innovation and entrepreneurship should not be ignored. Creativity is a complex aspect of the human experience that cannot be reduced to a single cause. Many creative people do not have bipolar disorder.

Myth: Creativity is the main symptom of bipolar disorder.

Reality: BD is a serious mental health condition. It is important to understand bipolar disorder and its need for appropriate treatment and support. While creativity may emerge as a by-product of BD for some individuals, BD should not be romanticised as a source of inspiration, as this could cause some people with BD to refuse treatment. Untreated bipolar disorder can have devastating consequences, including impaired functioning, relationship difficulties and increased risk of suicide. Effective treatment approaches are essential for managing symptoms, stabilising mood and improving quality of life. By prioritising the well-being and recovery of individuals with BD, this can result in improved quality of life and improved long-term outcomes.

Encouraging treatment and support

Encouraging treatment and support for bipolar disorder is essential for individuals affected by the condition to manage symptoms, improve quality of life and reduce the risk of relapse. Because different people experience bipolar in different ways and have different types and severities of symptoms, a personalised treatment plan will likely be created. The following treatments may be recommended:

Mood stabilisers

Medication known as mood stabilisers can help to prevent manic and depressive episodes. Mood stabilisers usually need to be taken every day on a long-term basis. Mood stabilising medications help regulate neurotransmitter activity in the brain, reducing the severity and frequency of mood changes. By taking prescribed medication regularly, individuals with BD can achieve greater stability and reduce the risk of experiencing manic and depressive periods. Commonly prescribed mood stabilisers include:

  • Lithium
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antipsychotics

You may also be prescribed medication, such as antidepressants, to treat the main symptoms of depression and mania if they occur.

Therapy

Therapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can play an important role in helping individuals with bipolar disorder manage their condition and cope with the challenges it presents. Therapy can provide important tools and strategies to help you identify and change negative thought patterns and regulate your emotions. Additionally, therapy can help you explore the relationship between mood changes and creativity, identify triggers for mood episodes and develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress and maintaining emotional stability.

  • Establishing a regular daily routine.
  • Prioritising good sleep hygiene and improving your sleep.
  • Reducing your daily stress.
  • Avoiding using drugs or drinking excessive alcohol.
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise.
  • Eating a balanced diet.
  • Prioritising social relationships.
  • Attending a BD support group.

Seeking appropriate treatment for BD can help to stabilise your mood and prevent episodes of mania, hypomania and depression. Consistent treatment and support can be important in preventing relapse and promoting long-term recovery for people with bipolar disorder. A comprehensive treatment plan that may include medication, therapy and lifestyle changes, can minimise the risk of experiencing reoccurring mood episodes and help you maintain stability over time. Additionally, ongoing monitoring and support from healthcare professionals and your support networks can help you and your loved ones identify early warning signs of relapse and implement strategies for early intervention.

Myth verses reality bipolar Disorder

Conclusion

Highlighting the dangers of romanticising bipolar disorder and the idea of the ‘tortured genius’ can help to increase society’s understanding of BD. It is important to acknowledge the very different experiences of individuals with bipolar disorder and offer appropriate support for those dealing with mental health challenges. By dispelling myths and promoting accurate information, we can challenge negative attitudes toward BD, encourage a more comprehensive approach to mental health awareness and support and create a more supportive environment for those affected by bipolar disorder.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.



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