Creative types such as Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and John Coltrane are known as much for their genius as for the mood disorders they experienced. Several studies have identified a connection between creativity and mental illness, particularly depression and bipolar disorder, formally referred to as manic depression.

One study out of Stanford University School of Medicine showed for the first that time that children who have (or at risk for developing) a bipolar disorder got higher creativity scores than children without the same health problem.

The researchers investigated creative characteristics in 40 bipolar patients and 40 offspring and compared them with 18 healthy adults and 18 healthy offspring. Fifty percent of the children with bipolar parents also had bipolar disorder and the other half had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), an early symptom of bipolar disorder in children whose parents have it.

The researchers included children with ADHD to investigate creativity before the full development of bipolar disorder. "We wanted to see whether having a manic episode is necessary for this sort of creativity," said Chang, who also directs the Pediatric Bipolar Disorders Program at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

The participants were psychiatrically evaluated and then given the Barron-Welsh Art Scale test (BWAS) to measure creativity. It involves indicating whether you like or dislike figures of different complexity and symmetry - previous research suggests that people who are creative do not like simple and symmetric symbols.

Results showed that bipolar parents had BWAS "dislike" scores that were 120 percent higher than those of healthy parents. Children who were bipolar and those with ADHD had 107 and 91 percent higher BWAS dislike scores respectively than healthy children.

Does a Mood Disorder Cause Creativity?

Other studies have found that artists and writers are two to three times more likely to have psychosis, mood disorders or to commit suicide than people in less creative professions. Researchers aren't sure exactly why this occurs, and they're not confirming that mood disorders cause creativity or that creativity triggers one of these mental illnesses.

According to Terence Ketter, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a co-author of the Stanford study, it's possible that creativity in people with mood disorders is a result of them mobilizing energy from negative emotions to find some a solution to their problems. "In this case, discontent is the mother of invention," he said.

Another possibility is that important genetic components get passed on together inter-generationally. However, the Stanford researchers found that mania is not necessary for creativity, as indicated by the fact that the children with ADHD had similar scores to those with bipolar disorder.

Other studies indicate that it may be the underlying temperament or personality of people with mood disorders--such as hypersensitivity, rumination (broodiness), flexibility and obsessiveness--that play a role in creativity.

While these studies show creativity as a positive aspect of mood disorders, mental illnesses pose serious health threats and need to be treated to prevent long-term complications and reduce the risk of suicide.

Signs of Depression and Bipolar Disorder

According to the Mayo Clinic, people with bipolar disorder may have symptoms of both depression and mania.

Signs of depression include:

  • sadness
  • loss of self esteem
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in activities and people
  • lethargy
  • sleep problems
  • social isolation
  • suicidal thoughts

Signs of bipolar disorder include:

  • rapid, unpredictable mood swings
  • hyperactivity or excessive energy
  • overreaction to stimuli
  • racing thoughts or flurry of ideas
  • distractibility
  • lack of need for sleep
  • increased irritability
  • excessive pleasure seeking and poor judgment
  • feelings of being in best mental state
  • increased sexual drive

A mood disorder, such as depression and bipolar disorder, requires professional treatment - you cannot treat them on your own. Both psychotherapy and medications can be effective treatments for mood disorders. About one in three people who have bipolar disorder will be symptom free if they take mood stabilizing medication.

For more information about mood disorders - treatment, support and information on medications--visit Or, call your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional.