The Link Between Depression and Creativity

The notion that depression and other forms of mental illness go hand-in-hand with creativity is so prevalent that it gave rise to the terms “tortured artist” and “mad artist.” But is this idea just a stereotype, or does it actually contain a grain of truth? 

Painters such as Vincent van Gogh, who famously cut off his ear and ultimately took his life in 1890, contribute to this idea, as does the writer Sylvia Plath, who died by suicide in 1963. Both artists detailed their mental illness in writing.

Popular Artists and Mental Illness

Van Gogh sent an 1888 letter to his brother Theo explaining, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Plath also wrote about her mental illness, referring to herself as neurotic, depressed, and suicidal in her 1963 semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar.” In the book, she wrote, “I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I'd cry for a week.”

Plath and van Gogh were just two of a very long list of suffering artists. Edvard Munch, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Frida Kahlo are also said to have suffered from depression.

Tortured artists are a group so fabled that researchers have set out to discover if there’s a verifiable link between mood disorders and artistic ability, but the results have largely proven inconclusive.

Some types of artists are reportedly more likely to be mentally ill than the general public, while others are less likely than non-creatives to suffer from mood disorders and psychological problems. Moreover, certain mood disorders appear to have stronger links to creativity than others.

Mood Disorders and Artistic Ability

In 2017, the Perspective on Psychological Science journal published a study called “Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The study explored whether mood disorders cause creativity, creativity causes mood disorders, or an unknown variable causes creativity and mood disorders.

Research author Christa L. Taylor of the State University of New York at Albany found that bipolar disorder, which is characterized by periods of mania and depression, was most often associated with creativity. In contrast, creativity was not associated with persistent depressive disorder (PDD), also known as dysthymia or low-grade depression.

Symptoms of PDD are less severe than they are in major depressive disorder (MDD) but typically last longer, up to five years on average. Yet, people with MDD tend to be more creative than those with mild depression, the research suggests.

Although major depression and bipolar disorder are associated with creativity, evidence does not indicate that having a mood disorder enhances an individual’s artistic ability.

Rather, the high-pressure and hectic lifestyles of many artists may lead to depressive symptoms, as tight deadlines, high expectations, fierce criticism, and intense travel are common for such individuals.

Creativity and Mood Disorders: Similar Symptoms

“A number of symptoms of (hypo)manic episodes are also characteristic of intense creative activity (i.e., ideational fluency and reduced need for food and sleep) and may resemble characteristics of flow (i.e., intense and focused concentration, distorted sense of time, etc.), which frequently occurs in individuals engaged in creative projects,” Taylor states.

“Studies using diagnostic criteria to diagnose mood disorder in creative individuals may be confounding mood disorder symptoms with the experience of creativity itself.”

In the end, Taylor’s review raised more questions than it answered. She suggested that her investigation is a guide for future research rather than a conclusive study. That’s because asking “if creativity is related to mood disorder is too general to yield constructive answers and may lead to faulty or overgeneralized conclusions,” she explained.

And previous studies did not pose more specific questions, which generate a “vague maybe” rather than a definitive yes to that inquiry. That said, a large study conducted before Taylor’s review also indicates that a link exists between psychiatric disorders and creativity. 

The Benefits of Art on Mental Health

On the other hand, creativity can be a positive outlet for people in mental distress, with art therapy increasingly prescribed for victims of trauma. Research has found that writing about painful past events may even temporarily boost one’s immune system.

Since creativity can be healing, people with mood disorders may instinctively turn to art to help themselves cope or heal. In addition, Taylor posits that the nature of creativity leads artists to behave in ways that read as disordered. 

Bipolar Disorder, Schizotypal Traits, and Creativity

A 2012 report called “Mental illness, Suicide and Creativity examined 40 years of research of approximately 1.2 million Swedish people and determined that creatives had a slightly higher rate of bipolar disorder diagnoses than the general population. The incidence of bipolar disorder in this group was small, however. People with the disorder were just 8% more likely to enter the arts.

The researchers determined that writers were 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and about 50% more likely to take their own lives than the public overall. (In contrast, dancers, visual artists, and directors were less likely than the general public to suffer from a mental illness.)

Interestingly, the study also found that close relatives of people with disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa disproportionately worked in the arts.

Research indicates that the non-psychologically disordered family members of people with schizophrenia tend to have more schizotypal personality traits than the general population. Schizotypy “includes unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs,” according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.

“‘Negative’ schizotypal traits include cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia (difficulty experiencing pleasure from social interactions and activities that are enjoyable for most people).” 

Creative personalities with unusual perceptual experiences and impulsive nonconformity rated themselves higher on a creativity scale than others, and a 2013 study called “Creativity and Schizotypy From the Neuroscience Perspective suggests that the mental processes that occur during the creative process are similar to those that occur in “psychosis proneness.”

This overlap doesn’t mean that mental illness fosters creativity but supports the idea that a brain engaged in a creative pursuit may closely resemble the brain of someone with a psychiatric disorder. 

A Word From Verywell

While studies and observations have shown a connection between depression and creativity, there is no conclusive evidence that someone suffering from depression would be "more creative." However, it's worth noting the similar traits that are associated with both mood disorders and creativity.

Either way, creativity and artistic expression have been shown to have a significant benefit to people with depression. If you or a loved one suffers with depression, in addition to seeing a health professional, you might consider engaging in an art project—you may be pleasantly surprised at the sense of relief provided from painting, writing, or even dancing alone to some music.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Taylor Christa L. Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2017 Sept 21,

  4. Taylor Christa L. Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2017 Sept 21,

  5. Hammond Claudia. The puzzling way that writing heals the body. BBC. 2017 June 2.

  6. Kyaga Simon. Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study. National Library of Medicine. 2013 Jan, doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.09.010.

  7. Kauffman Scott Barry. The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness. Scientific American. 2013 Oct 3.

  8. Fink Andreas. Creativity and schizotypy from the neuroscience perspective. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience. 2014 March 14, doi: 10.3758/s13415-013-0210-6.

By Nadra Nittle
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author. She has covered a wide range of topics, including health, education, race, consumerism, food, and public policy, throughout her career.