Creativity and Depression: Is There a Link?

by Sloane Miller Patient Advocate

We are inundated with the profiles of famous creatives who suffer from depression. Is the connection supported by research? What came first: creativity or the mood disorder? What happens to the brain of a creative genius if you treat depression or bipolar disorder or anxiety? Do they lose the ability to see the world in technicolor and express through their art form the nuances of the human condition? Here are a few things you should know about creativity and depression.

Ballet dancers on a stage.
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Creativity and Bipolar Disorder

The link between creativity and bipolar disorder is supported in various studies. In 2014, Simon Kyaga led a team of researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institute where they found that, “people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8 percent more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121 percent more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.”

Friends in a band playing instruments together.
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Depression and Creativity: Which Comes First?

There is still a lot of debate about the link, if any, between creativity and mood disorders. In her article “Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity,” posted on SemanticScholar.org, professor of psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison writes, "Most manic-depressives do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings. To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the 'mad genius.'"

Dark hole.
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Holes in the Research of Mood Disorders and Creativity

Many researchers wonder about a possible link. So, Christa Taylor, psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University at Albany, State University of New York conducted a metanalysis to investigate prior research examining the possible link between mood disorders and creativity. She found that each study measured creativity and mood differently; there were no apples-to-apples studies, and there was little direct evidence to directly support such a connection.

Creative sculptor battling with depression.
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Does Treatment for Depression Stifle Talent?

Taylor stated her concerns that perpetuating a connection between creativity and mood disorders may mislead creative people to worry that getting help for a mood disorder may stifle or hurt their artistry. Lady Gaga spoke to this fear, saying: "Depression doesn't take away your talents—it just makes them harder to find.”

Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy.'
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Anecdotal Evidence of the Connection Between Creativity and Depression

While Taylor’s research uncovered holes in the connection between creativity and depression, the anecdotal evidence is strong. Consider the long list of musical artists, actors, and creative souls who say they struggle with depression: Ashley Judd, Emma Stone, J.K. Rowling, Halle Berry, Brooke Shields, Adele, Mariel Hemingway, Selena Gomez, and many more.

Fitting puzzle pieces together.
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Did Creativity Contribute to Recent Suicides?

Recently, we’ve lost two world-renowned, successful, famous creators to suicide: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. These deaths beg the question: Do you have to depressed to be creative? Do you have to be creative to be depressed? Is there a link between creativity and depression, even suicidality?

 Host Anthony Bourdain attends the panel discussion for 'Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations' during the Discovery Networks' Travel Channel presentation at the 2005 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour.
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Anthony Bourdain's Suicide

Since the splash of his memoir, "Kitchen Confidential", Anthony Bourdain had been launched into the global conversation around food and travel. His death was shocking not merely to the culinary community but to the global community. Through his various platforms, he told the human story with truth and authenticity. Did his ability to see and articulate the dark side of humanity contribute to a mood disorder? Or was his ability to express human emotion a gift of his melancholy?

Curator Kate Spade attends a gallery exhibition of photographer Slim Aarons' work.
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Kate Spade: A Public Face, a Private Reality

Shop at any of the 140 Kate Spade stores around the world and you will find a colorful, charming, accessible, and fun world. Her personal style and professional brand exudes happiness. According to Spade’s husband, the iconic fashion designer suffered from depression and anxiety for years. However, even he said he had no notion that Spade was feeling suicidal. One has to wonder, were her professional brand’s bright primary colors created to combat a deeper, darker inner world?

Supporting and comforting a friend by holding their hand.
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Resources for Help

Remember what Lady Gaga said, “Depression doesn't take away your talents—it just makes them harder to find.” Don’t be afraid that treatment for depression will stifle your artistic talents. If you are in crisis and need immediate support or intervention, call, or go to the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.

Sloane Miller
Meet Our Writer
Sloane Miller

Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSW, specialist in food allergy management and author, is founder and President of Allergic Girl Resources, Inc., a consultancy devoted to food allergy awareness. She consults with private clients, the healthcare, food, and hospitality industries, government and not-for-profit advocacy organizations. In 2006, Ms. Miller started Please Don't Pass the Nuts, an award-winning blog for and about people affected by food allergies. In 2011, John Wiley & Sons published Ms. Miller's book, Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well With Food Allergies, the definitive how-to guide. Ms. Miller combines a lifetime of personal experience and passion with professional expertise to connect with people about how to live safely, effectively, and joyously with food allergies.