Kay Redfield Jamison’s article about creativity and manic-depression is very convincing in its argument that many of the historically renowned artists, poets, writers, and other creative people suffered from mood disorders. This article provides standard clinical definitions of manic-depressive illness as well as Jamison’s own more vivid descriptions of the effects of the illness. The historical information as well as modern studies of creative people provide compelling evidence that manic-depressive illness tends to run in families and is more present in creative people. Diagrams such as that of the Tennyson family tree, the chronology of Robert Schumann’s creativity, and the comparison of major depressive illness/manic-depressive illness/cyclothymia/suicide in the general population compared to various modern studies of creative people demonstrate how devastating the illness can be for creative people. Major issues are the devastating symptoms such as suicide that plague people with mood disorders and that treatment with drugs “can dampen a person’s general intellect and limit his or her emotional and perceptual range” (49). Jamison’s conclusion is that finding better ways to treat mood disorders must happen “without sacrificing crucial human emotions” and that it should be “a major public health policy” (49).
It is difficult to disagree with what Jamison has written, especially when lacking an expertise in mood disorders. She provides the caveat that “most manic-depressives do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings” (45). Nevertheless, the diagram on page 47 illustrating the greater rates of depression, manic-depression, and suicide is striking with its evidence that mood disorders inordinately affect creative people. Jamison appears to feel strongly that mood disorders benefit creativity because “these fluxes and yoking may reflect truth in humanity and nature more accurately than could a more fixed viewpoint” (49). Considering that earlier in the article, Jamison claims that most gifted creative people do not have chronic mood disorders, this last quote seems to be more of an opinion than scientific evidence. While earlier in the article, Jamison says that the assumption that mood disorders are necessary for creativity “trivializes a very serious medical condition,” her idea that people with mood disorders may have a more accurate view of humanity than those who do not have mood disorders seem to be conflicting statements (45).
It was especially interesting to read that writers and artists had at least twice the amount of psychotic episodes, mood disorders, suicide attempts, and substance abuse than successful people in other professions such as science, public life, and business (48). Also interesting is that Jamison is a successful and prolific psychiatrist and scientist who has manic-depressive illness herself (Linklater). In spite of the fact that Jamison often links the idea that artists disproportionately suffer from mood disorders, it is a disservice to those in scientific professions such as Jamison herself to say that their work requires no creative or innovative work and thought. Jamison writes “it would be irresponsible to romanticize such a painful, destructive and all too often deadly disease” (49). While this is obviously the correct attitude, when confronted with all of the portraits of beloved artists, it is difficult not to attach some romance to the suffering these people endured. It leaves open the question of what would have happened to Tennessee Williams, Robert Schumann, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and many others if their mood disorders were successfully treated. However, considering that Jamison herself has manic-depressive illness and has remained prolific and creative in her own work and research, it is believable that these artists who suffered so much could have still been just as creative and suffered much less.
Jamison, Kay Redfield. Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity. Scientific American: Mysteries of the Mind (1997): 44- 49. Print.
Linklater, Alexander. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison – Review. The Guardian Books (13 Aug. 2011). Web.