Edgar Allan Poe pointed to an intriguing question:
Does the highest form of human genius require a certain level of mental instability?
The idea of a mad scientist, a mad artist, or a mad genius is not novel. William Blake’s poetry was made that much more alluring, that much more brilliant by his mental instability. Lord Tennyson’s mood swings unveil an internal struggle between the solipsistic artist and the outside world. Sylvia Plath, a brilliant American novelist, poet, and writer, suffered from profound depression, eventually culminating in her committing suicide at age 30. Mozart’s behavior was unpredictable, as he quickly shifted from moments of ecstatic euphoria to a pit of melancholic hopelessness. And Albert Einstein sought help from a therapist to deal with his depressive tendencies.
So, is there a relationship between brilliance and mental health issues?
Today, researchers have confirmed that several of the above suffered from either depression or manic-depressive illness. The former often produces melancholy, while the latter is frequently manifested in dramatic mood swings.
Being brilliant does not require mental instability, but modern findings have shown that a surprising number of geniuses do suffer from one of the above mental health illnesses, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM.
Historiometric research indicates that highly creative individuals are twice as likely as the average person to suffer from a mental illness, often showing signs of depression, addictions, and suicidal tendencies. Also, the more intelligent the individual, the more intense their symptoms can be.
Studies have also shown that artists are more likely than scientists to suffer from a mental health illness. For instance, Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute confirmed that writers are almost twice as likely than the general population to commit suicide. In addition, dancers and photographers are more prone to have bipolar disorder. Artists are also more likely to suffer from anorexia or autism.
Psychiatric studies have shown that the relationship between mental health issues and genius is often inherited. Again, this is especially the case for those with artistic talent.
The Danger of Romanticizing Mental Health Issues
Unfortunately, some have come to romanticize the relationship between brilliance and mental instability. But this can be a dangerous path to follow.
As argued by Murphy, some elevate the status of geniuses merely because they suffer from a mental health illness. But mental illnesses can have dire effects and deserve to be treated seriously.
The notion that creative genius requires mental instability can lead certain artists to pursue unhealthy life choices. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, believed that he could not produce works of poetic genius in a drug-free state. He sought a heightened sense of imagination through taking opium and eventually became an addict.
From the Struggling Artist to Art Therapy
Although the notion of the struggling, mentally unstable genius persists to this day, there is also an emerging movement of art therapists who are reclaiming the relationship between art and mental health.
At Artbeat Studio in Winnipeg, Canada, for instance, a new program aims to bring about empowerment and recovery through the pursuit of individual creative expression.
Art does not need to produce melancholia, grief, and depression. As a society, we should seek to deepen our understanding of how the creative world can bring about freedom, insight, hope, and beauty. Though creative geniuses should not be naïve, they have the potential to find fulfillment in works that are uplifting and hopeful. Art can provide the opportunity for one to grow and reflect (here's a great article on The Art of Self-Reflection).
In the documentary Why Beauty Matters, philosopher Roger Scruton explains that our modern culture of art often points to the grotesque and to the ugly, rather than to the insightful and the beautiful. Perhaps this is a symptom of society’s pessimistic obsession with depressing realities, including the notion that geniuses by definition need to experience a heightened sense of suffering.
But the good news is that creative geniuses can find hope for themselves and for others, including through artistic endeavors. And mental health professionals should help them rediscover this brilliant pursuit – a pursuit that can foster a healthier environment for talented individuals and those who admire their life works.