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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Mental Illness and Creativity

Q. I am doing a research paper on mental illness and creativity. I saw that you were able to refer many books to someone interested in mental illness and humor, and was wondering if you could possibly do the same for me, or send any information that you may have regarding this topic.

A. The connection between insanity (or mental illness) and creativity has been debated for hundreds of years. While, in general, the presence of serious, active mental illness greatly undermines creative thought and expression, there may be a connection between artistic creativity and some types of mental illness. This has been most clearly described with respect to bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, as typified by Dr. Kay R. Jamison's book, "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temper" (1996). (In this same connection, see the article by J.F. McDermott in the May, 2001 American Journal of Psychiatry, on the poet Emily Dickinson, who may have suffered from bipolar disorder).

Other books that may interest you include Dr. Richard Chessick's "Emotional Illness and Creativity" (1999) and Daniel Nettle's "Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature" (2001). While the link between creativity and mental illness is intriguing, it should not make us lose sight of the enormous suffering severe mental illness inflicts upon its victims-surely not a great bargain, even if, for some types of mental illness, there is also a mysterious connection with the Muse.

July 2001

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