Creativity and mental health

J. Schlesinger

After thoroughly enjoying Dr Wills' 1988 book (Wills & Cooper, 1988) I was dismayed to see his recent article (Wills, 2003). His book detailed the real, unremitting and often unique stressors faced by those struggling to make a living from music - as opposed to the pop-psychology focus on their (allegedly) inherent psychological flaws.

Although entertaining, psychological autopsies are not valid research tools, as the author fortunately points out in the ‘limitations’ box. Further, the ‘comprehensive literature’ about the psychopathology/creativity link is shot through with badly designed studies and dramatic overstatement.

Like Wills, Jamison (1989) was the sole judge of her hand-picked sample - 47 creative artists - but few authors dig up her unreplicated original work, preferring to pass along her unscientific conclusions. For example, many introductory psychology textbooks include her contention that 50% of poets have affective disorders, without noting that she had only 18 poets in her sample and moreover diagnosed affective disorder as simply ‘seeking treatment’ for it. And while Ludwig's book (1995) is full of charts and graphs, on close and trained inspection they are overwhelmingly meaningless; despite its subtitle, it actually resolves nothing at all.

Unfortunately, the tradition in this field is to pass along any confirmatory ‘mad creative’ conclusions, regardless of any liberties taken with the scientific method. Most of the common research blunders are detailed by Arnold Rothenberg (1990), as well as in my own work (Schlesinger, 2002a,b). Such flaws should have been fatal, but apparently the public appetite for the doomed artist is too great. It's a shame that so many professionals continue to feed it with their invalid speculation. As Wills understands better than most, musicians don't need anything else to worry about.


Author's reply

Schlesinger feels that ‘psychological autopsies are not valid research tools’, and is scathingly critical of the work of Jamison (1989) and Ludwig (1995). However, she fails to take into account the conclusions of Jamison's later work (1993), which, as well as reporting on her own study of 47 contemporary British writers and artists, also discusses biographical material relating to 195 famous artistic creative persons, 21.5% of whom died by suicide and 33.3% of whom were hospitalised with psychiatric problems. Jamison also refers to many academic studies of creativity and mental illness stretching back over the past century.

Turning to what Schlesinger describes as Ludwig's ‘overwhelmingly meaningless’ charts and graphs, I have to say that I find his statistics perfectly acceptable and meaningful. The use of psychological autopsies is a legitimate exercise if one follows rigorous guidelines as laid down, for instance, in the scholarly work of Runyan (1982).

What is Schlesinger's own view of the creative person? She tells us (2002) that he/she is a heroic and mystical figure, branded as mad by the jealous and uncomprehending average person. This is a straightforward reiteration of the ideas of the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s. We are back in the realms of the Laingian figure who is simply too insightful and too existentially aware for our society. Have we not moved on since then?