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Suffering for art: Creativity and mental illness linked, study finds

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as an Artist, January 1888, Oil on canvas, 65.2 x 50.2 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh Foundation

It's no coincidence that many of the world's greatest artists, writers and thinkers have been tortured souls.

According to a new study, creative people are more likely to be treated for mental illnesses than the rest of the population. The study, from researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, examined a registry of nearly 1.2 million patients, and relatives of patients, who had been diagnosed with a variety of psychiatric conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and substance abuse.

The researchers found bipolar disorder was more common amongst dancers, photographers, researchers, authors and others in artistic or scientific professions. Authors were also found to have higher rates of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse, and were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

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The scientists found that creative types are also more likely to be relatives of patients who have mental disorders.

Researcher Simon Kyaga suggested in a press release that mental-health experts should weigh the potentially beneficial aspects of mental illnesses when they treat patients.

"If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient's illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment," he said. "In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost."

The study supports previous findings from the Karolinska Institutet, which showed similarities in the brain scans of highly creative people and of people who had schizophrenia. Moreover, there are plenty of prominent examples of highly creative but mentally ill minds, including author Virginia Woolf, painter Vincent van Gogh, and mathematician John Nash. An earlier study even referred to it as the "Sylvia Plath" effect after the writer, who famously chronicled her struggle with depression in the book The Bell Jar.

However, Beth Murphy of the British organization Mind, which provides advice and support to those with mental illnesses, told the BBC that while it's possible that certain traits of mental illness could help creativity, the study's findings could be interpreted another way: Those with mental illnesses may simply be more inclined to enter creative professions.

"It is important that we do not romanticize people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses," she told the BBC.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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