Depression, Bipolar & Grief Counselling Blog

Creativity in Bipolar Disorder—are we all geniuses?

Lee Hopkins - counsellor and photographer
GPS 34°53’18.708″ S 138°53’22.506″ E

Actually, no. Sorry to burst a bubble.

It’s a good myth – that Bipolar Disorder (BD) sufferers are creative types that can burn the midnight candle and produce work that changes the world. Unfortunately, too much clinical evidence exists that points out extreme mania in BD is actually counter-productive to creative output. You might be outputting lots of work, but the quality is probably less than you would accept in normal circumstances.

Greg Murray and Sheri L. Johnson have reviewed the medical literature on BD and creativity and give us some interesting results:

  • Only 8-10% of BD sufferers can be considered ‘creative’ (put down that brush, Eugene);
  • There is an association between the psychological trait of ‘openness to new experiences’ (O) and BD, as there is with ‘psychoticism’ (P), suggesting that not only are BD sufferers more likely to be impulsive and take risks in order to do something different, but they are also more likely than the general populace to occasionally lace their impulsivity with a disregard for others;
  • If you suffer from BD and are strongly extrovert, you may well be drawn to the performance arts if you do have that creative bent;
  • Many of the creative professions can be counter-productive to the mental wellbeing of sufferers, because of disruption of sleeping patterns, irregular activity/work patterns, exposure to alcohol and narcotics, challenges to goals that are often set extremely high, an unusually strong identification with one’s occupation that allows no other income/lifestyle choice, and increased reinforcement of emotional sensitivity.

So what hope is there for creative types who have BD? Murray and Johnson suggest that we:

  • Continue our medication regime;
  • Where possible, limit the amount of travel, especially across time zones;
  • Find a psychoeducation program that will help us recognise our symptoms of mania and depression, recognise the triggers behind them and help us discover what we can do for ourselves to keep ourselves more stable;
  • Consider Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy if our schedules involve intense sleep disruption or travel;
  • Consider signing up for a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course that will allow us to examine our thoughts and re-appraise unproductive core beliefs; and finally
  • Get some Family Focused Therapy so that we and our families can work together to manage our illness and its expression (especially because creativity seems to run in families and just because one member of the family has BD doesn’t mean that they’re alone).

Source: Murray, G. & Johnson, S.L. (2010). The clinical significance of creativity in bipolar disorder. Clinical Psychology Review 30(2010), pp.721-732

See also my post on the myths of bipolar disorder, particularly ‘Myth 5’.

Please see my medical disclaimer.


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