Study: Writers Are Twice as Likely to Commit Suicide

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Substantiating the popular notion linking creativity and mental illness

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PROBLEM: "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia," E.L Doctorow told the Paris Review. He was speaking metaphorically, as creative types do. Right?   

METHODOLOGY: In the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of this purported phenomenon, researchers at Karolinska Institute in Sweden gathered census data representing almost 1.2 million patients with schizoaffective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa and suicide. Then they looked at their employment in the the arts and sciences: "creative" occupations. The control, naturally, was "accountant."

RESULTS: Bipolar disorder was the only diagnosis found to be more prevalent in people with creativity-based careers, who were overall less likely to be diagnosed with the mental illnesses included in the study. (An earlier study of this same population had found, though, that families with a history of bipolar or schizophrenia were more likely to produce creative people.)

When the researchers looked specifically at authors, they found that they are overrepresented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

Interestingly, the close relatives of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and, to a lesser extent, autism, were more likely to be employed in creative fields.

"In general, being an accountant or a relative to an accountant meant negative or no association to the psychopathologies investigated."

IMPLICATIONS: It can be useful to not always think of mental illness in black and white terms: these findings suggest that some positive outcomes like creativity can be associated with what are otherwise debilitating conditions. Such thinking can help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and, to some extent, be construed as empowering to patients. 

But if I can editorialize for a moment, it's impossible to overstate the importance of not reading too far into results like this -- as the significantly increased suicide rate emphatically demonstrates, the reality of mental illness is bleak. It's fine to celebrate people with mental disorders' contributions to society, but of course that shouldn't stop us from doing everything possible to treat them.

The full study, "Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study," is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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