The Links Between Creativity and Depression

There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?

Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.

Taylor identified 36 studies on the creativity-mood disorder relationship from a set of almost 3000 that were potentially relevant. She combined data from these different studies into into separate “meta-analyses”, depending on the specific question she was trying to address. We can be confident in the findings from these meta-analyses because they involved data from thousands or even millions of participants.

Taylor first looked at whether creative people are more likely to have a mood disorder compared to non-creative controls. She looked at data from from ten studies involving fine arts students, creative writers, and eminent figures from creative fields, and found that yes, there was a clear relationship between being creative and having a diagnosis of a mood disorder, such as depression (overall the association had a moderate-to-large effect size). This finding held across different ways of measuring creativity, such as musical performance or tests of divergent thinking (finding new ideas or solutions). Creativity was most commonly associated with bipolar disorder (a condition marked by periods of low and high mood). It was not associated with all mood disorders – for instance, dysthymic disorder (mood depression that is longer-lasting but milder in nature than clinical depression) was no more common among creative people than controls. To read more from Alex Fradera, click here.