Be sure to read Part One: Dialing in the Diagnosis
Before we discuss the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity, we want to be clear that nothing in this article glamorizes or romanticizes bipolar disorder. We work with bipolar patients every day, and we know first-hand living with the disorder can be uncomfortable at best and completely debilitating at worst. It’s a serious mental health condition that takes work, patience, and professional help to manage. People with bipolar disorder experience the world in a way those of us without bipolar disorder can only imagine. Those who manage their symptoms and lead productive lives are strong, brave, and worthy of our respect and praise.
As the parent of a bipolar teen, you know your child has a tough row to hoe. It’s likely they’ll be on some sort of medication for the rest of their lives. They’ll probably struggle with one or more cycles of mania and depression every year. If they’re like the majority of people with bipolar disorder, they’ll make mistakes, go off their medication, hit bottom, regroup, decide to go back on their meds, right the ship, then cruise along for a while with everything under control until they make another mistake and go through it all again.
We’re pulling no punches: it’s going to be hard for you to watch, and it’s going to be even harder for them to maintain balance as they navigate the ups and downs that are almost sure to come. However, there is hope. Bipolar disorder can be managed. With care, attention, and patience, your bipolar teen can work with qualified professionals and find ways to turn the disorder from a disadvantage to an advantage. They can find the upside and turn what most people would consider a liability into an asset – and it’s not only through medication and therapy. A growing body of evidence shows that proactive lifestyle choices such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a mindful awareness of personal triggers contribute to the successful management of mild and even severe cases of bipolar disorder.
If you read our article “Hope for Bipolar Teens – Part One” you know one of the main challenges facing teens who display symptoms of bipolar disorder is getting the diagnosis right. If you’ve got the diagnosis dialed in, this article will help you and your teen understand that, although bipolar disorder can feel like a dark cloud over the future, it’s a cloud with its own unique set of silver linings.
Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
The list of famous artists known to have bipolar disorder is long and filled with names most people recognize. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that we only hear about the pain these artists go through, and don’t learn they had bipolar disorder until years or decades after they’ve passed on. The presence of these artists in the public consciousness creates a paradox: on the one hand, it raises awareness of bipolar disorder, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it does something detrimental to both the way we see mental illness and the way we expect people with bipolar disorder to behave: it reinforces the tortured artist stereotype and leads to the inaccurate conclusion that any person who’s bipolar and creative will lead the life of a mad, eccentric genius.
Let’s set the record straight.
First, not everyone who has bipolar disorder is a genius. Second, not everyone who is bipolar and creative leads a tumultuous life. Many of the names we know, such as Jimi Hendrix, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, and Robin Williams, we know because their lives were a fascinating combination of dizzying success and heartbreaking tragedy. They’re famous for the art they created, but they’re also famous for their manner of passing – which, for better or for worse, has been sensationalized by the media and reduced to clickbait headlines
The fact is that these names are the exception to the rule. We know – it’s a depressing list. We include it to make an important point: millions of people live with bipolar disorder. They manage their condition, they live their lives, and there’s nothing sensational or tabloid-worthy about them. We know about the select handful because they’re celebrities. Their names sell magazines and get clicks – but in terms of numbers, stories like theirs are quite literally a drop in the bucket. In addition to the millions who live with bipolar disorder who don’t get headlines, there are a number of celebrities past and present with bipolar disorder whose condition is known, but not because of media hype or personal drama: Jane Pauley, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vivien Leigh, Russel Brand, Carrie Fisher, Patty Duke, Linda Hamilton, and Winston Churchill all make the list.
We acknowledge that by pointing out all the famous people with bipolar, we’re falling into a trap, of sorts. Most people with bipolar disorder won’t become famous. They’ll manage their condition, live fulfilling lives, and there’s a good chance they’ll find a creative career in which they can harness the energy of their manic phases and transform it from disruptive to productive. In 2004, a group of researchers from Oregon State University published a fascinating paper: “Brainstorm: Manic Depression, Occupational Choice, and Creativity”. Rather than focusing only on people with careers in fine arts such as music, painting, and acting, this study examined data on those with bipolar disorder in professional and managerial careers that require a high degree of creativity.
Two things make this study novel: the sample size – over 20,000 individuals – and the criteria used to classify the career choices – the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. These features mean the data and conclusions are neither colored by star-struck celebrity glorification nor hampered by a narrow set of subjects. It’s grounded in the real world in that it examines real people doing real jobs – not that celebrities aren’t real people and being a rockstar isn’t a real job, but everyone knows only a very, very small percentage of the population becomes famous for their creative pursuits. Here are their findings:
- The employment rate for individuals with bipolar is 71%, compared to 82% for the general population.
- Individuals with bipolar earn about 57% of the earnings of the general population.
- Bipolar status in the past year – meaning a self-reported manic/depressive cycle within twelve months of reporting – does not significantly affect income or employment.
- The lifetime number of bipolar episodes significantly increases income for men.
- Individuals with bipolar disorder show statistically higher occupation in professional and managerial positions which require creativity than the general population.
- Individuals with bipolar disorder show statistically higher levels of education than the general population.
As a whole, the data from this study debunk the notion that people with bipolar disorder are doomed to live the chaotic life of a mad artistic genius or that their diagnosis means they’ll end up uneducated, unemployed, and unhappy. Quite the opposite: the data indicate people with bipolar disorder tend to end up educated and employed, and they’re likely to end up in careers or occupations where their diagnosis helps rather than hurts them. For parents of bipolar teenagers, this is great news: you now have a solid set of facts to support an optimistic outlook for your child’s future educational and occupational prospects.
The Examined Life
There’s another element of having a mental health disorder that, when viewed from a certain angle, can be seen as an advantage. The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said,
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
If there’s one thing people with mental health disorders do more than virtually everyone else alive, it’s examine themselves. Those who get professional help spend hours in therapy dissecting their behavior, emotions, and impulses. People with bipolar disorder might spend years learning the subtle signs – called triggers in mental health and recovery circles – that lead to the onset of a manic or depressive episode. They have a deep, sensitive, and intimate knowledge of personal cues and internal shifts in mood. A cue that would barely be a blip on the radar for most people will burn bright as a bonfire for someone who knows what to look and feel for. This heightened level of awareness means they can deploy the coping mechanisms they develop to manage their mania and depression – before they happen. They can increase their medication, schedule additional sessions with their therapist, or double down on healthy lifestyle choices that keep them on track.
That’s why it’s important for parents of bipolar teens to work alongside both their teen and their teen’s therapist to identify triggers, create strategies for navigating highs and lows, and help them lay the foundation for a robust and resilient set of skills that will serve them through adolescence, early adulthood, and beyond. Parents who choose to fully participate in this journey will not only learn more about their teenager, but they’ll also learn more about themselves.
This is an area where we can all learn from people with bipolar disorder: self-awareness. If everyone fine-tuned their emotional intelligence to the level required to manage a potentially disabling condition such as bipolar, then we’d all do a better job managing our moods and sticking with healthy lifestyle choices. The net gain would probably be a populations-wide increase in overall happiness and well-being. When you look at it that way – when you flip the script, as your teen would say – you might conclude that bipolar disorder is more blessing than curse, more silver lining than dark, gloomy storm cloud, and you’ll most certainly find good reason to have hope for your child’s future.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.