People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of both mania (an exceptionally elevated, irritable, or energetic mood) and depression. These episodes can be separate or depressed and manic symptoms may occur at the same time as symptoms of depression. The frequency of episodes varies. At least four depressive, manic, hypomanic (mild form of mania) or mixed episodes within a year is known as rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.
During the early stages of a manic episode, people can be very happy, productive and creative. They have less need for sleep and don’t feel tired. There is some evidence that many well-known creative people suffer or have suffered from bipolar disorder. But this link may be caused by an unknown third factor, such as temperament.
In our culture, bipolar disorder has the tendency to be romanticized by its association with creative types, but many sufferers’ experience of the illness is far from glamourous. Patients report getting to the point where they can’t function and sometimes need to be hospitalized, especially if they don’t take their medication as prescribed.
"Bipolar disorder may carry certain advantages for creativity, especially in those who have milder symptoms.”
At the same time, however, at the start of a manic episode, a person might make lots of plans because the world seems full of opportunity. Individuals report that they feel high, they meet a lot of new friends, they'll go on shopping sprees and spend all their money, and sometimes they say that they even feel invincible. When prescribed, medication can remove or dull the experience of mania. A person experiencing mania may not like that their high mood and productivity is compromised, so they stop taking their medication.
So... is there something about the manic or in-between episodes of bipolar disorder that can be conducive to creative expression in some people?
Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco noted, “It is well-established that people with affective disorders tend to be overrepresented in the creative artist population (especially those with bipolar disorder). Bipolar disorder may carry certain advantages for creativity, especially in those who have milder symptoms.”
Oftentimes, people living with bipolar disorder report that they are at their most creative and productive when feeling most healthy. For example, the poet Sylvia Plath, who is widely believed to have had bipolar disorder, said that when she was writing she was accessing the healthiest part of herself.
In 2005, a study tried to unravel the relationship between writer Virginia Woolf’s creativity and her mental illness, which was most likely bipolar disorder. The psychiatrist Gustavo Figueroa of the University of Valparaiso, Chile, writes, “She was moderately stable as well as exceptionally productive from 1915 until she committed suicide in 1941.
“Virginia Woolf created little or nothing while she was unwell, and was productive between attacks.” But, “A detailed analysis of her own creativity over the years shows that her illnesses were the source of material for her novels.”
It does seem that for those who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, creativity can offer a powerful means of expression.
Figueroa, C. G. Virginia Woolf as an example of a mental disorder and artistic creativity. Revista Medica de Chile, Vol. 133, November 2005, pp. 1381-88.
Liu, A. et al. A Case Study of an Emerging Visual Artist with Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Neurocase, Vol. 15, June 2009, pp. 235-47.