Creative Genius? Are You Crazy?

It is often said that there is a thin line between genius and madness, usually with a further remark about someone who is straddling that line. But do genius and madness really have anything to do with each other?

For a start, let’s use the terms creativity and mental illness. When we talk about genius, we often think of Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, geniuses in mathematics and theoretical physics. Or we think of prolific and significant inventors, like Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. And when we talk about mental illness, we usually envision killers – suicide bombers, spree killers, sociopaths, and the like.

Those views are limited, however. Creativity – or creative genius – encompasses art of all kinds. Picasso’s paintings, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, Rodin’s sculptures, and so many others are works of creative genius as well.

Now we come to the intersection of creativity and mental illness.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof. Something, anyway.

They must have been! They were geniuses! And some of them acted crazy! Van Gogh cut his ear off! Surely he was insane!

Well, really, no one can tell if any of those diagnoses is true. None of those greats is known to have undergone psychoanalysis by a real doctor who actually met them. Some of the diagnoses didn’t even exist while the creative geniuses were alive. We make assumptions based on what we know about the famous and what we know of psychiatry – very little, in most cases.

The same is true for famous villains and criminals. Nero was a pyromaniac. Saddam Hussein was a narcissist. The Marquis de Sade was, well, a sadist. Ted Bundy was a sociopath, or a necrophiliac, or had antisocial personality disorder, or, well, something. He was crazy!

(In point of fact, mentally ill persons are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence.)

What do we actually know about creativity and mental illness? Damn little. Get five people in a room and try to get them to agree on a definition of “creativity.” Design a scientific experiment to measure the connection between creativity and mental illness. You can’t do it without a definition of creativity and a list of which mental illnesses or conditions you are studying. And any results would therefore be subjective.

One thing I do know about creativity and mental illness is that creative people can be reluctant to admit their diagnoses for fear of being dismissed as a “crazy artist” or stigmatized. Brilliant glass artist Dale Chihuly only recently revealed that he has had bipolar disorder for years. In an interview with the Associated Press, his wife, Leslie Chihuly, said, “Dale’s a great example of somebody who can have a successful marriage and a successful family life and successful career — and suffer from a really debilitating, chronic disease. That might be helpful for other people.”

Indeed. Many people who have psychiatric diagnoses – or who suspect that they might – are reluctant to seek help. Many believe that taking medications for a mental disorder, in particular, might impede their creative flow. That is, they too are equating their creativity with “madness” and refuse to treat one for fear of losing the other.

In fact – and as a person with bipolar disorder I say this from experience – getting treatment can actually improve a person’s imaginative, creative, or scientific output. Level moods, time not lost to depression, freedom from the pain and fear of worsening symptoms, and other benefits of psychological and medical help can increase the time and the vigor and the passion that a creative person puts into her or his work.

That’s one of the reasons that it’s so important to erase the stigma associated with mental disorders. We could be missing out on the next creative genius.

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