Why are artists prone to mental illness

Are creative people prone to mental illness?

A new study strengthens the myth of the sick genius: According to it, art students are almost twice as likely to develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as the general population.

Had Robert Schumann been alive today, he would probably have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This view is held by Richard Kogan, American psychiatrist and pianist who has dealt with the work and medical history of the German composer. Schumann's work was characterized by phases of excessive creativity. He composed 140 songs in one year and completed three string quartets in a creative frenzy of two weeks.

In his Sonata in G minor, Schumann sets the absurd tempo "As fast as possible". A little later, in the same sentence, it says: «Now faster» and then «Even faster». "That was probably an attempt to translate his maddened thoughts into musical language," said Kogan a few years ago in an interview with the "Psychiatric Times". “His music was full of abrupt, unprepared transitions. I think they reflect his disjointed and fragmented thoughts. "

Genius and madness are often close together in our imagination. Friedrich Hölderlin, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Silvia Plath - many important artists suffered from mental illness. But can we conclude from this that creativity and psychological suffering are linked? Is psychological suffering really the price humanity pays for creativity, as the saying goes?


Robert Schumann (1810-1856) experienced many psychological crises in his life. In 1854 he came to a sanatorium near Bonn. The diagnosis was "delusional melancholy".


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is considered the epitome of the sick genius. It is unclear whether he suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or epilepsy.


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) believed to have had bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941.


It is difficult to prove such a connection. In one of the most cited studies, the American English scholar and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen examined a group of writers in 1987 and found that they were more likely to develop bipolar disorder than the general population. However, these and similar studies were criticized as not particularly meaningful because of the small number of cases and methodology.

Search in large data pools

More recently, researchers have switched to analyzing larger populations. In a study published in 2011, researchers examined the data of 300,000 people with a mental illness regarding their occupation. It was found that people with bipolar disorder and their relatives were more than average in artistic professions. The same was true for the relatives of people with schizophrenia, but not for the patients themselves. This probably has to do with the fact that they are often unable to work. Most cases of psychosis begin in young adulthood - those affected therefore have no opportunity to establish themselves professionally.

Students in an arts field reported an almost double
at such a high risk of developing schizophrenia.

Now James MacCabe from King’s College in London has drawn attention to the field of study. In his study, he took into account the health data of a total of 4.5 million Swedes. He wanted to know whether there was a connection between the subject and being admitted to hospital for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression.

The result: people who had completed a degree in a creative discipline such as music or art often suffered from mental illness. Compared to the general population, arts students were almost twice as likely to develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The connection was particularly pronounced for students of the visual arts ("British Journal of Psychiatry", online).

"These findings support the thesis that certain aspects of creativity could be associated with mental illness," says James MacCabe. Creative people tend to see the world in new and unconventional ways. «Deviating thought patterns, in which original connections are created between ideas, are a hallmark of creativity. In other circumstances, however, they could produce thought disorders or delusions. "

According to MacCabe, recent research suggests that creativity and mental suffering are genetically linked. Research in Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, has shown that gene variants associated with mental illness are more common among actors, musicians and visual artists. So it seems that the genes that make you prone to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also encourage creativity. However, the effect of these gene variants on creativity is very modest.

Positive stigma

Experts warn against a “positive stigmatization” of mental illness, as Georg Juckel, Medical Director of the Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Preventive Medicine at the LWL University Hospital in Bochum, calls it. "I doubt that mental disorders automatically have something to do with creativity," he says. Not every creative person is crazy, and mentally ill people are by no means all creative.

The myth of the mad genius feeds the idea that few people are capable of true creativity. But there is also a high level of creativity without mental illness. "It may be that those with a mental illness who are also creative live out their creativity more intensively or more uninhibitedly," says Juckel. But a mental disorder is something very serious and life-destroying. «One shouldn't romanticize the suffering. Anyone who is sick has to be treated. "