Mental Illness & Creativity?

by derecke2013

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been studying the works of some of the greatest composers of all time: Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler, and Schumann. What all these composers have in common is an incredible gift for creating powerful, creative, emotionally-evocative sounds that have captivated audiences across time and distance. Unfortunately, what they also have in common is a history of mental illness.

After we studied Schumann’s Carnaval a few weeks ago (the piece he composed from the perspectives of his various “personalities”) I couldn’t help but see a trend in many of the composers we’ve been studying. Many of them seemed to suffer greatly from some sort of mental anguish. I did a little research and found this article in the New York Times from 1994, explaining this darker side of the Romantic composers (I would really recommend reading the whole thing- super interesting):

Here are just a few interesting facts the article presents:

* Beethoven, who once contemplated suicide, was described by his contemporaries as heavy-drinking and violent-tempered.

* Donizetti died of neurosyphilis in an insane asylum.

* Berlioz was afflicted by black depressions and tried to kill himself.

* Bruckner had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for mental illness.

* Brahms may have died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by heavy drinking.

* Tchaikovsky was manic-depressive and is thought by some to have committed suicide.

* Wolf died insane, with symptoms of tertiary syphilis.

* Mahler was a manic-depressive with a long family history of mental illness.

* Rachmaninoff was afflicted with deep depressions, and dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to his psychiatrist.

The author, Jamie James, spends most of the article talking about Robert Schumann, arguably the “most severely afflicted of all.” Schumann suffered from debilitating bouts of manic-depression. He tried to kill himself when he was 43, and died in an insane asylum two years later.


Why is there such a strong connection between these highly regarded artists and mental illness? That is the question that James analyzes throughout this piece. Some scholars believe that mental illness, although hugely burdensome, can be advantageous for many artists in that it makes them more creative. According Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor in psychiatry, manic-depressive illness, “in the context of a creative mind, can at certain times create a very definite advantage for the artist,” though she in no way believes that mental illness is a requirement for creativity.

Other scholars in the mental health field believe that there isn’t as strong of a correlation between mental illness and creativity. Dr. Stuart Feder, another psychiatrist, believes that we tend to ignore the differences between one’s mental illness and elements of one’s personality. Was it really Schumann’s mental illness that made him creative, or was it just his inherent character? Other psychiatrists, like Dr. Anna Burton, believe that “some people simply have an unusual capacity to create, and no reliable scientific study shows them to be afflicted more than ordinary people.”


I tend to side more with Jamison on this issue. Though I don’t believe by any means that mental illness is a requirement for creativity, I do believe that those who are familiar with some of the extremes of human emotion have an advantage of sorts in that they have more experience operating outside of the norm. What do you all think?

James also brings up an interesting argument at the end of his article regarding the use of pharmaceuticals to help with mental illnesses. He asks the question of whether the use of these medications could actually retard creative faculties. Jamison believes that “mordern medicine may make the patient feel better, in other words, but the world may be losing great music and poetry as a result.” Of course, this is not to say that nontreatment is the solution, as nontreatment “often does result in the greatest possible retardation to creativity: death by suicide.”

What do you all make of this?