BBC Mental Health and Creativity stories

There was a story on the BBC site today, that talks about the ‘closely entwined links’ between creativity and mental health. There were several other links that lead from this page. I will provide the links and the full texts (in case they later disappear) for all the stories below – most recent first. All accessed on the publication date stamp of this post.

Creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness’

By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online

Virginia Woolf Novelist Virginia Woolf killed herself

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Creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of more than a million people.

Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found.

They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.

The dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.

“It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses”

Beth Murphy The mental health charity Mind

As a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people.

But they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.

Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.

For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.

Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.

Troubled minds

  • Novelist Virginia Woolf, who wrote A Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse, had depression and drowned herself
  • Fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, had depression
  • US author and journalist Ernest Hemingway, who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, had depression and killed himself with a shotgun
  • Author and playwright Graham Greene, who wrote the novel Brighton Rock, had bipolar disorder

Dr Kyaga said: “If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient’s illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment.

“In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost.

“In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavour to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid.”

Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, said bipolar disorder personality traits could be beneficial to those in creative professions, but it may also be that people with bipolar disorder are more attracted to professions where they can use their creative skills.

“It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.

“We know that one in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health problem this year and that these individuals will come from a range of different backgrounds, professions and walks of live. Our main concern is that they get the information and support that they need and deserve.”

Related Internet links

This story ties in well with the poetry research I have been doing from the book ‘Touched With Fire’.

Poetry, the creative process and mental illness

By Alex Hudson BBC News

Luke Wright Poet Luke Wright has to be in a relaxed, stress-free frame of mind to begin writing

Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” according to one lover, Keats was driven to distraction by obsessive love and Sylvia Plath ended her own life.

Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry.

The incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation was 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 according to a study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison.

In other words, poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population.

Science has puzzled to explain it. One recent study found similar brain patterns in artists at work to those of schizophrenics. Another study found that creative graduates share more personality traits with bipolar patients than less creative ones.

As far back as the mid 1800s, Emily Dickinson stated that “much madness is Divinest sense” and Edgar Allan Poe questioned “whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence”.

“Start Quote

Edgar Allan Poe

Men have called me mad but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence”

Edgar Allan Poe

So what is it about poetry that seems to attract those more likely to suffer a mental disorder?

“If you’re a creative person, then poetry is a great format because it’s short,” says poet Luke Wright.

“You can do almost anything with it and it’s not like a novel – it’s not going to take you years and you have no idea if it’s going to be any good.”

Poetry allows for the nuance of language and the different way someone sees the world.

“I think you’ve always got to be interested in a slightly different aspect of the universe to even want to pick up a pen and analyse the world through poetry,” says spoken word artist Laura Dockrill.

“I think our brains are big scribbles and always active. Because you can write about anything, you’re always on the go – trying to put something to your Velcro head hoping it will stick on.

“Part of poetry is making words do more work that they usually should do and so you’re looking for every angle of what a word might mean and so your brain starts working like as well – over-analysing everything and zooming in to minute detail.”

‘Creative conflict’

Many psychologists have tried to define what makes someone creative or not, and how that can be calculated.

Experiments measuring how many uses a participant could think of for a brick have been carried out but JP Guildford’s model of creativity, published in 1950, is still often used. The ideas of fluency, flexibility and originality of ideas, along with the ability to elaborate on them were the four points of his theory.

Vincent Van Gogh Painters and musicians as well as poets have been associated with mental illness

“Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us,” chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon told the BBC earlier this year.

“Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as ‘mentally ill’.”

So is it mental illness that drives people to art or art that drives people to mental illness?

“A lot of creativity comes from a conflict somewhere in your mind,” says Wright.

“I don’t think you have to be ‘mad’ to be a poet but if your mind is alive, then it can produce both positive and negative responses. It can mean wonderful things but it can mean that fitting into ‘normal’ life is difficult.”

‘Happy chap’

With the increase of mental disorder diagnosis, the idea of what “normal” is has become more difficult. Around 1% of the US population have schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 4% of adults and bipolar disorder affects 2.5% of people, according to the US Census Bureau.

Some see expressing emotions and experiencing the highs and lows of life as positive things.

“I’ve got poems about all sorts of dark subjects but in general I’m a pretty happy chap,” says spoken word artist and musician Scroobius Pip.

“In my life, I don’t sit around discussing murder, suicide and spousal abuse with my mates. I talk about football and normal stuff. It’s important to feel an array of emotions and it’s great for the mind and soul.

“Though poetry, I’m sure, has a lot of people with mental illness, because if these people are having these feelings anyway, expressing them and writing them down and sharing them can help.”

Indeed, the Art Therapy Credentials Board says that art can “reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem”.

Out of the Vortex – poems inspired by depressive illnesses is on BBC Radio 4, Monday 7 February, 2300 GMT and then afterwards on iPlayer.

How Creativity mimics schizophrenia

Creative minds ‘mimic schizophrenia’

By Michelle Roberts Health reporter, BBC News

Salvador Dali Artist Salvador Dali is known for his surreal paintings and eccentric personality

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Creativity is akin to insanity, say scientists who have been studying how the mind works.

Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia.

Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.

It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to “think outside the box”, say experts from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

In some people, it leads to mental illness.

But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms.

Art and suffering

Some of the world’s leading artists, writers and theorists have also had mental illnesses – the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and American mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) to name just two.

Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Thalamus The thalamus channels thoughts

Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative.

Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen believes his findings could help explain why.

He looked at the brain’s dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought.

He found highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus – as do people with schizophrenia.

The thalamus serves as a relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.

“Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror”

Mark Millard UK psychologist

He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.

This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.

Schizophrenics share this same ability to make novel associations. But in schizophrenia, it results in bizarre and disturbing thoughts.

UK psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society Mark Millard said the overlap with mental illness might explain the motivation and determination creative people share.

“Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes.

“Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way.

“There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd.”


  • Writer Virginia Woolf
  • Painter Vincent van Gogh
  • Painter Salvador Dali
  • Painter Edvard Munch
  • Composer Robert Schumann
  • Mathematician John Nash
  • Pianist David Helfgott

He said businesses have already recognised and capitalised on this knowledge.

Some companies have “skunk works” – secure, secret laboratories for their highly creative staff where they can freely experiment without disrupting the daily business.

Chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon says an ability to “suspend disbelief” is one way of looking at creativity.

“When you suspend disbelief you are prepared to believe anything and this opens up the scope for seeing more possibilities.

“Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us. Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as ‘mentally ill’.”

He works as an executive coach helping people to be more creative in their problem solving behaviour and thinking styles.

“The result is typically a significant rise in their well being, so as opposed to creativity being associated with mental illness it becomes associated with good mental health.”

Article about an artist with schizophrenia who finds it has nurtured his artistic expression.

A beautiful mind
Everest on Fire, by Stuart Baker-Brown

Mount Everest, by Stuart Baker-Brown, represents his struggles in life

Stuart Baker-Brown, 43, a photographer and writer based in Dorset, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996. On World Mental Health Day, he delivers a unique personal insight into how his condition has nurtured his artistic expression.

In the past, schizophrenia has broken my life and taken away many of life’s opportunities, such as work and the ability to interact with society and family or even myself.

The symptoms have been very disabling and destructive and have included psychosis (delusion and hallucinations) which is understood to be a disturbance of sensory perception and creates the inability to recognise reality from the unreal.

Stuart Baker-Brown
Many people with schizophrenia are naturally creative and turn to the arts to release their inner thoughts and emotions
Stuart Baker-Brown

Other daily symptoms, such as depression, suicidal thoughts, the feeling of being controlled by outside forces, paranoia and fear of persecution, have made life very difficult to cope with.

There is also the stigma and discrimination attached to the condition, especially the perceived link to violence – less than 1% of those diagnosed are violent towards others.

I believe the condition is very misunderstood, especially the link with creativity.

The Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky; Nobel prize winner in economics, John Nash (A Beautiful Mind); novelist, poet and writer, Jack Kerouac; and musicians such as Peter Green, Syd Barrett and James Beck Gordon have all either experienced, or are believed to have experienced, schizophrenia in some form.


The condition has also been linked to the families of Tennessee Williams and Albert Einstein. Psychologists believe that schizophrenia personality is also associated to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson and Isaac Newton.

Many people with schizophrenia are naturally creative and turn to the arts to release their inner thoughts and emotions and to express the meaning of their symptoms.

In my experience, schizophrenia is potentially a very creative tool which, as yet, has not been understood or recognised and is mistreated and so its powerful symptoms manifest as confusion and destruction.

About 1% of people develop schizophrenia
Genetics probably play a part
Ten to 15 per cent of people with a close relation with schizophrenia develop it
Treatments include psychological therapies or medications

If this potential creativity was nurtured and encouraged, I believe we could find something quite unique, rather than the devastation we recognise.

I am now in a very fortunate position and my creativity is beginning to be achieved. My symptoms have eased greatly, due to my own personal belief and will to survive and finding a medication, Seroquel, that truly works with me.

Like other artists, such as Philippa King and Aidan Shingler, who share my condition, I am harnessing my creative side and now using my symptoms to work for me rather than against. This works for me in both writing and other art forms.

The symptoms feed me the tools to become creative. I seem to be thinking all the time and the psychosis is not necessarily destructive. The experience of a hallucination can often be recalled in the creation of artwork or poetry, for example.

Mount Schizophrenia

Much of my writing captures my life with schizophrenia, my past symptoms and experiences. I turn these into short stories or my novel, The Man Who Can, which is a story based on my life and my journey from the spiralling tunnel of darkness towards the bright sky of light.

I also have many sketches of images that have appeared in my thoughts or have appeared in front of me when I have laid relaxing in my bed or even walking along the street.

The subjects of my photography are given added meaning, such as Mount Everest, which represents “Mount Schizophrenia” and my struggles in life.

Sometimes it feels that the symptoms of my condition are very naturally creative and often without any prompting my imagination comes alive. My mind, as others with the condition, is often very stimulated, as if on a more heightened awareness than people without it.

Buddhist Child in Contemplation, by Stuart Baker-Brown

Stuart takes pictures in Nepal where he says there is no stigma

But the problem is expressing what I see or hear because strong cognitive difficulties – such as memory loss, disorganized thoughts, difficulty concentrating and completing tasks – impair my ability to enhance and capture my true creative potential.

Unfortunately psychiatry leans far more towards controlling schizophrenia, rather than showing understanding towards a patient’s true needs and potential capabilities.

There needs to be far more emphasis on working with the symptoms. A far greater holistic approach needs to be adopted.

The link with creativity and schizophrenia has always been evident. Yet research into the understanding of these links has been very limited.

Thankfully, East Carolina University, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the National Institutes of Health in Britain are starting to research the links between schizophrenia and aspects of human creativity and cognition.

I personally believe that we are at the very beginning of having a true understanding of schizophrenia and its symptoms.

Let’s hope that after so much misunderstanding, this new research will open much-needed and refreshing doors to the truth.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I suffer from schizophrenia, have done most of my life I think, I’m a musician and happen to think a rather creative and passionate one at that. I would say there is definitely a link and that yes, while schizophrenia is mostly a curse, there’s a small silver lining by way of a strong and unique creativity. Stuart is right in that the hardest thing to do is harness your creativity with what is effectively a social and mental handicap. Also, the NHS just wants to suppress you and your mind not explore it or find a way to only combat the bad bits, they just want you to ‘calm down’ which inhibits ALL your mental capacity.
Derek, St Albans

A wide range of psychiatric disorders have been ‘linked’ (often tenuously) to creativity. Kay Jamison has noted bi-polar depression in many writers (see ‘Touched with Fire’ her study of the subject). One thing one has to remember that the majority of artists and writers do not suffer from any such disorder and one would not wish to romanticise distressing mental illness too much. Of course a schizophrenic episode can stimulate extraordinary work in an otherwise mediocre artist. The C19 painter Louis Wain is a good example. His cute sentimental cat paintings became demonic and quite remarkable during a period in which he suffered from schizophrenia. When he recovered his paintings became banal once more.
Dectora, London

It was very encouraging to read a positive report about schizophrenia. Having worked in the mental health system, in the UK and the US, for 25 years, I have certainly read enough negative press portraying people with schizophrenia as violent and dangerous. How nice to read something creative and person centred. Thank you!
Sue, New York

This story above is so true, I have a brother who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he releases his inner thoughts and stress by drawing, I’ve just noticed that recently. He also tends to lash out on members of the family and says things that he doesn’t realise what has been said. His mind works like a five-year-old when he’s 28, and he’s had all the possible treatments you can ever have but nothing has changed.
Sumiya Achha, Lancashire

RD Laing has already attempted to harness the creativity of those with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Following the obsession with finding a biological basis for the illness, particularly this miraculous undiscovered gene, he was widely ridiculed and his methods branded as symptomatic of the whole hippy culture of that period.
James Campbell, Kirkcaldy

Very interesting article. My twin brother has schizophrenia so it is very close to the bone – so close that I am unable to help him for fear of becoming like him. There is definitely an artistic flair in all those with this condition and my brother is a lovely, gentle, charming person.
Angela V Frangos, London, UK

Thanks for presenting a positive note on schizophrenia on mental health day. Having worked in psychiatry for 6 years, I feel the greatest challenge we STILL face is stigma and articles like this go a long way in destigmatising it to some extent.
Senthil Subramanian, bracknell, UK

One of the studies mentioned in the first quoted page above is here but is expensive to buy! So I am adding the extracted text supplied on that page below – it may be something useful to read in full at a later date.

Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study

  • a Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Box 281, 171 77 Stockholm, Sweden
  • b Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, The Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • c Department of Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Ulleråker, Uppsala, Sweden
  • d Centre for Violence Prevention, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

View full text

Purchase $31.50


We previously demonstrated that patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and their relatives are overrepresented in creative occupations. Here, we use a new dataset with a considerably larger sample of patients (n = 1,173,763) to survey other psychiatric diagnoses and to validate previous findings. The specific aims of this study were to i) investigate if creativity is associated with all psychiatric disorders or restricted to those with psychotic features, and ii) to specifically investigate authors in relationship to psychopathology. We conducted a nested case–control study using longitudinal Swedish total population registries, where the occurrence of creative occupations in patients and their non-diagnosed relatives was compared to that of matched population controls. Diagnoses included were schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide. Creative professions were defined as scientific and artistic occupations. Data were analyzed using conditional logistic regression. Except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric disorders than controls. However, being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. In addition, we found an association between creative professions and first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and for siblings of patients with autism. We discuss the findings in relationship to some of the major components of creativity.


  • Creativity;
  • Schizophrenia;
  • Bipolar disorder;
  • Autism;
  • Substance abuse;
  • Suicide;
  • Nested case–control study

Figures and tables from this article:

Full-size image (136 K)
Fig. 1. Associations between diagnoses and creative professions.

Table 1. Descriptive data for patients.

View table in article
Table 2. Associations between proband psychiatric morbidity and a creative occupation in proband and first-degree relatives.

View table in article
Relatives to all patients were not allowed to have any event of the disorder of the patient.

Corresponding author contact information
Corresponding author. Tel.: +46 8 52482277; fax: +46 8 314975.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Note to users: Corrected proofs are Articles in Press that contain the authors’ corrections. Final citation details, e.g., volume/issue number, publication year and page numbers, still need to be added and the text might change before final publication.

Although corrected proofs do not have all bibliographic details available yet, they can already be cited using the year of online publication and the DOI , as follows: author(s), article title, journal (year), DOI. Please consult the journal’s reference style for the exact appearance of these elements, abbreviation of journal names and use of punctuation.

When the final article is assigned to an issue of the journal, the Article in Press version will be removed and the final version will appear in the associated published issue of the journal. The date the article was first made available online will be carried over.

And of course the other link is the marvellous Mind.


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