Vincent Van Gogh had a point when he said, ‘If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.’ The thing is, he probably actually did hear voices’which may have provided artistic insight, but also told him to cut off his own ear.
Van Gogh is just one of many artists and writers who suffered from mental illness, and, according to a new study, it’s not a coincidence.
The study, which tracked more than one million patients and their relatives, is the most comprehensive ever in its field. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden not only found a link between creative professions and mental illness, they also uncovered an especially significant finding about writers.
According to the study’s abstract, ‘being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide’
Though this may be a scary stat for those in creative professions, especially writers, it’s actually good news for treatment.
"If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patients illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment," Simon Kyaga, consultant in psychiatry and doctoral student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, said in a press release.
This new approach would involve discussion about what aspects of an illness to treat’and what might be lost by doing so.
If this study is true, I’m not sure any of my favourite books would exist today had the authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath’) been treated for mental illness.
After all, T.S. Elliot was right: Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.
What do you think? Are the creative people you know disproportionately affected by mental illness? Do you agree with this study’s findings?
-Katharine Watts, Associate Web Editor