Study: Writers Are Twice as Likely to Commit Suicide

More

Substantiating the popular notion linking creativity and mental illness

scribbles615.jpg
Eleaf/Flickr

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 .

Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In