The Link Between Depression and Creativity

Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin
Artist Vincent van Gogh suffered from mental illness, famously cutting off his ear and eventually taking his own life.

Fine Art / Getty Images

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.

This article explores the paradoxical association between creativity and mental illness. It also discusses some of the potential mental health benefits of creativity and artistic pursuits.

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

A 2017 study explored whether mood disorders cause creativity, creativity causes mood disorders, or an unknown variable causes creativity and mood disorders. The researchers 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

According to some researchers, studying creativity and mood disorders is complicated by the fact that the creative experience is sometimes confused with mood disturbances. For example, hypomanic and manic symptoms can mirror behaviors that occur during intense creative episodes, including rapidly occurring ideas and the reduced need for food and sleep.

Such behaviors also often occur when a person is in a state of flow, a mental state where people become highly focused and creative. During this time, people also exhibit intense and focused concentration as well as a distorted sense of time.

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. Some potential benefits of art and creativity for mental health include:

  • Reduced stress
  • Better coping skills
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Improved memory
  • Increased resilience
  • Better self-esteem
  • Improved trauma-coping

Reviews of the available research suggest that the connection between creativity and mental health is nuanced and complex. One theory, known as the dual-pathway model of creativity, suggests that creativity is the product of cognitive persistence and flexibility.

Creativity can have a positive effect on mental health, allowing people to develop skills and strategies that both improve creativity and maximize mental well-being. 

Bipolar Disorder, Schizotypal Traits, and Creativity

In one study, researchers examined 40 years of research on 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. Schizotypal traits include having poor mental boundaries between the self and others, engaging in impulsive nonconformity, and unusual perceptional experiences.

Creative personalities with unusual perceptual experiences and impulsive nonconformity rated themselves higher on a creativity scale than others. A 2013 study suggested 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 has 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 by painting, writing, or even dancing alone to some music.

9 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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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.