While bipolar disorder can have a negative effect on how a person performs some daily tasks, it might also affect creativity in some people. History is full of artists, actors, writers, and musicians who have had symptoms of bipolar disorder.

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Illustration by Bailey Mariner

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme changes in mood and energy. Moods alternate between emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression). Some people have only a couple of these episodes in their lives. Others experience them a few times a year.

Some studies have found a link between this condition and creativity. But is there really a connection between bipolar disorder and creativity, or is it just a coincidence?

Whether there’s a link between bipolar disorder and creativity is hard to say for sure. For one thing, it depends on how a person defines creativity.

Studies have used many different definitions. Most researchers have compared a specific group of creative people, such as writers or musicians, to “noncreatives.”

The earliest studies to explore the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder came out in the 1970s and 1980s. Experts based some of their early research on the biographies of artists and writers.

One small 1974 study involved researchers comparing 15 successful creative writers to 15 noncreative people. More than 70% of the writers had a psychiatric disorder compared with 20% of noncreative people.

The close relatives of those writers also had higher rates of mental health conditions, suggesting that genetics might be involved in the connection.

A 2015 study found that people at a higher genetic risk for bipolar disorder were also more likely to work as artists. Experts have yet to find the exact genes that might connect bipolar disorder and creativity.

Experts have also explored the connection in more recent research. A 2017 research review found more cases of mood disorders in creative people but with mixed results, depending on how the experts planned their research.

A small 2022 review of 12 studies didn’t find people with bipolar disorder to be any more creative than those without it. Results of creativity tests were actually lower when people experienced depressive episodes.

A note on this topic

The idea that bipolar disorder somehow fuels creativity is unsettled. It’s also controversial. Critics argue that the concept of the “tortured artist” romanticizes a serious mental health condition that drives some people to suicide.

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While experts continue to study the link between bipolar disorder and creativity, many famous artists throughout history had documented mental health conditions.

Writers Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sylvia Plath are well known for having experienced symptoms of bipolar disorder. Artist Vincent van Gogh had severe episodes of mania and depression. He produced many works of art during these periods but ultimately died by suicide.

More recently, many actors and musicians have mentioned their difficult experiences with bipolar disorder publicly. Some notable examples are:

  • Bebe Rexha — singer-songwriter
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones — actor
  • Demi Lovato — actor, singer-songwriter
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme — actor, martial artist
  • Kanye West — rapper, singer-songwriter
  • Mariah Carey — singer-songwriter
  • Mel Gibson — actor
  • Richard Dreyfuss — actor
  • Russell Brand — comedian, actor
  • Selena Gomez — actor, singer-songwriter
  • Sia — singer-songwriter
  • Sting — musician, actor

Researchers continue to explore the connection between art and mental health conditions. They’re also looking at whether creative therapy might help treat the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Experts have explored painting, music, dance, and other creative practices as therapy for bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Art and music therapy are already part of some mental health clinic rehab programs.

Creative therapy is promising but not well studied for bipolar disorder. A 2021 review looked at 349 studies on music therapy for mental health conditions. More than 68% of the studies had positive results, but few of them focused on bipolar disorder.

Also, the researchers used very different methods, so it’s hard to draw any certain conclusions from their collective findings.

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If bipolar disorder drives creativity, what effect might treatment have? Some artists, writers, and musicians claim they are much more productive during their euphoric manic periods. There’s a worry that medication might diminish that creative spark.

Yet treatment may have benefits, too. Anyone who becomes distracted and disorganized during manic episodes might find their focus improves after they take medication.

It’s hard to know for sure how treatment might affect creativity because experts need to perform more research on the topic. A small 1979 report involving 24 artists with bipolar disorder is one of the few studies on the subject. Medication improved productivity in 12 people, had no effect on 6 people, and lowered productivity in 6 people.

Many famous artists, writers, and musicians throughout history have had symptoms of bipolar disorder. Research suggests there may be a link between creativity and mental health conditions, but experts need more information on this topic before drawing a conclusion.

It’s also unclear what role genes might play in the connection and which genes could be involved.

What researchers learn in the future might pave the way to new treatments like art therapy or music therapy, which use creative outlets to help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder.