The idea of creative genius arising from a troubled mental state has long been suggested. Although a number of studies in the past have found a link between creativity and mental health, they were usually poorly conducted and biased. However, a large well-designed study by researchers at two Swedish universities, looking at over a million people with psychiatric illness, has recently been conducted to explore the possible association.

What was the study?

Researchers compared people diagnosed with a psychiatric illness – using the national patient register from 1973 to 2009 – and matched controls that did not have a history of psychiatric illness; there were ten controls for each person identified with a history of psychiatric illness that were also Swedish and matched for age and gender. Occupations were then identified from the national census and a creative occupation was deemed one that involved art or science; the occurrence of this was compared between the study subjects and controls. The study also examined whether the relatives of those with psychiatric illnesses – who did not have their own mental health problems – were more likely to have a creative job.

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What were the findings?

With the exception of bipolar disorder, the chance of someone in a creative occupation having a psychiatric disorder was no greater than in the control group. Interestingly people employed within creative jobs were significantly less likely to have ADHD, anxiety, autism, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, schizophrenia or to have committed suicide than the control subjects. However, writers as a group were two times as likely to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, as well as being more likely to suffer from a number of other psychiatric disorders or to commit suicide. It was also found that first degree relatives of those with anorexia, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were more likely to be employed in a creative role, as were the brothers and sisters of those with autism. This latter finding may add weight to the “inverted U model” – symptoms of mental illness can only increase creativity up to a point, after which it falls – as relatives share some of the same genes; they may have symptoms below that which allows a diagnosis to be made, though obviously not all psychiatric disorders have a genetic component.

What conclusions can be drawn?

The findings generally refute the idea that creativity is linked to psychiatric disorders; the only supporting evidence related to those with bipolar disorders and writers. However, it is not possible to draw any conclusions about cause and effect. The study did have limitations such as the vague definition of a creative occupation, missing occupational data for some of those with psychiatric illnesses and using data from over a long time period during which diagnostic criteria may have changed; any of these could have strongly influenced the findings. Further research is required before firm conclusions can be drawn.