The “mad artist” has long been a pop culture trope—that creative genius often comes with being neuroatypical, and perhaps vice versa.
But is it true? As more artists speak out about their mental health, the more perspectives we have about the potential origins of creativity.
In today’s Click Track, first, we explore the scientific research behind musical talent and bipolar disorder. Second, we’ll take a look at contemporary artists that have publicly spoken about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and how it has influenced their art.
(Interested in reading more about mental health and creativity? I have also written about the connection between ADHD and creativity.)
(I may earn money from links in this post to books on Amazon.com.)
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder (or known as manic depression) is a mental disorder where a person experiences states of depression and elevated mood. The medical textbook Stahl’s Essential Psychopharmacology lists more than a half-dozen variants of bipolar disorder, but generally there are two broad categories of the condition:
Bipolar I — Categorized by elevated states of mania and low states of depression.
Bipolar II — Categorized by milder elevated states of hypomania and low states of depression.
Symptoms of (hypo)mania include, but aren’t limited to, excessively high mood, anger, restlessness, and substance abuse. Depression symptoms include loss of energy, feelings of hopelessness, and somnolence. Regardless of subtype, people that live with bipolar disorder may have a normal “euthymic” temperment most of the time. Bipolar disorder may also be comorbid with another psychiatric condition like psychosis, substance abuse, ADHD, or anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) contains more information on diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder, starting on page 132.
The causes of bipolar disorder are not understood, but are believed to be highly genetic, with the symptoms of (hypo)mania and depression manifesting in a person’s early twenties.
Bipolar disorder is highly correlated with suicide. From a meta-analysis of thirty studies, on average 19% of people with bipolar disorder end up committing suicide, although this average is raised by studies conducted before the widespread pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder.
The research behind creativity and bipolar disorder
Kay Redfield Jamison is one of the leading mood disorder researchers. She coauthored the psychiatric reference textbook Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. She herself also struggles with bipolar disorder, and her memoir An Unquiet Mind tells her story of living with the disorder that she studies.
Jamison has also authored the book Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which examines the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. In the book, she cites several studies (at least 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 of them) that have observed some connection between creativity and (hypo)mania or psychosis, including some of her own original research. However, most of these studies have small sample sizes and predate modern diagnostic standards for bipolar disorder and schizoprhrenia.
Since Touched With Fire was published in 1996, more research (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20) has been done with larger sample sizes, modern diagnostic standards, and new tools like genetic sequencing. Some of these studies have also examined the link between creativitity and the neurotypical biological relatives of people diagnosed with a mood or psychotic disorder. Some studies also suggest that there is a correlation between creativity and having relatives with a mood or psychotic disorder, where the creative person themselves does not have clinically-significant symptoms.
Contemporary musicians that have spoken out about their struggles with mental illness
In this section, I focus mainly on contemporary artists that have opened up about struggles with bipolar disorder. There are many more musicians that are speaking out about unipolar depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and addiction, which are topics I may cover in a subsequent newsletter.
Pete Wentz is the bassist for the band Fall Out Boy. He also owns the record label imprint DCD2 Records, which has been instrumental in the careers of many bands like Panic! at the Disco, Gym Class Heroes, and the now-defunct band Cobra Starship that once released a song titled “Pete Wentz Is the Only Reason We're Famous.”
Pete revealed his struggle with bipolar disorder in an interview with Q Magazine and has subsequently spoken about his journey over the years with People Magazine in January 2015 and again in January 2018. Fall Out Boy’s most recent studio album is titled M A N I A. The album’s lead single, “Young And Menace,” is embedded below. Pete Wentz annotated the song’s lyrics on Genius, mentioning that they are inspired by his mental health journey.
I’m just here flying off the deep end
I'm just here to become the best yet
I'm just here for the psych assessment
I'm just here for the... For the...
With Fall Out Boy having gone on hiatus in 2009, Pete Wentz started a new band in July 2010 called Black Cards with Nate Patterson, Spencer Peterson, and up-and-coming singer/songwriter Bebe Rexha. She ended up leaving Black Cards in 2012, signing with Warner Bros. Records in 2013, and releasing her first solo single “I Can't Stop Drinking About You” in April 2014.
In December 2014, she released “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy” as the second single for her EP I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.
In 2018, she released the single “I’m A Mess” for her album Expectations, which addresses the topic of mental health and the music video takes place in a faux psychiatric institution.
In April 2019, Bebe Rexha announced via Twitter that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On February 25th, 2019, SELF Magazine announced Bebe Rexha as the new cover for March 2020, and she opens up about the details of how her life has changed since her diagnosis.
Gucci Mane is an Atlanta rapper that rose to fame in the late 2000s. He is also known for attracting numerous controversies and legal issues. A 2016 article in The New Yorker covering Gucci Mane describes a psychiatric diagnosis as a turning point in his life:
Two years later, his mother filed an unsuccessful petition for guardianship, declaring that he had been given diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; a psychiatrist testified that she didn’t know whether his behavior “was based more on the primary psychiatric issue or on the substance-abuse issue.”
“People have called me bipolar or that I suffer from depression, but I always identified most with the symptoms of someone with PTSD. Like a soldier who came home still dealing with the effects of being in a war zone.”
Since then, Gucci Mane has released a song with Quavo titled “BiPolar”:
In 2015, Halsey opened up to ELLE Magazine about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager. She also brought up the hereditary nature of the disease—stating that her mother also has the disorder too.
I have bipolar disorder, and I get bored of shit really quickly. Music is this thing that I get to focus all my chaotic energy into, and it’s not a void that doesn’t love me back. It’s been the only place I can direct all that and have something to show for it that tells me, ‘Hey, you’re not that bad.’ If my brain is a bunch of broken glass, I get to make it into a mosaic.
Her latest album is titled Manic, and below is the music video from her single “You should be sad.”
Kanye West has dropped hints about his mental health in his music over the years. However, Kanye famously addressed his mental health journey most directly in his song “Yikes” on his 2018 album ye, ending the song with the lines:
That's my bipolar shit, n***a, what?
That's my superpower, n***a, ain't no disability
I'm a superhero! I'm a superhero
Mariah Carey has scored more #1 hits (nineteen total) on the Billboard Hot 100 than any other solo recording artist in history. She was diagnosed with bipolar II in 2001. The public speculated over her mental health after a notoriously-publicized psychiatric hospitalization in August 2001, but Mariah Carey only went public with her diagnosis in an interview with People Magazine seventeen years later in 2018.
Mariah Carey released “Through The Rain” as a single from her 2002 studio album Charmbracelet. In an interview with MTV News, she loosely connects the inspirational lyrics to the difficult year she had behind her. But for the music video, she and director Dave Meyers were inspired to tell a story loosely based on her parents.
Ronald Braunstein is a Julliard-trained orchestral conductor. He is the founder of Me2/, a classical music nonprofit focused on mental health (with no relation to #MeToo). The New York Times profiled him in January 2019, where he reflects on how living with bipolar disorder has affected his career:
Upon graduating from the Juilliard School in his early 20s, he entered a summer program at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria, and in 1979 became the first American to win the prestigious Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin.
His career took off. He worked with orchestras in Europe, Israel, Australia and Tokyo. At the time, he didn’t have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
But looking back, he can see that his disorder contributed to his success, and his talent masked the condition.
“The unbelievable mania I experienced helped me win the Karajan,” he said. “I learned repertoire fast. I studied through the night and wouldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat because if I did, it would take away my edge.”
“My bipolar disorder was just under the line of being under control,” he said. “It wasn’t easily detected. Most people thought I was weird.”
Scott Stapp is formerly the lead vocalist of the post-grunge rock band Creed. In 2015, in two interviews (separate links) with People Magazine, he describes his journey of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In mid-2019, he dropped his third solo album The Space Between the Shadows, with the lead single “Purpose for Pain,” which references his mental health journey.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by S. Nassir Ghaemi
S. Nassir Ghaemi is a prominent mood disorder researcher. In this layperson book, he argues that leaders with traits resembling mood disorders are more effective than normal “homoclite” leaders during times of crisis.
Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness, edited by Lee Gutkind
Show Me All Your Scars is a series of short stories from people suffering from mental illnesses or their family members.
More Click Track articles
April 21, 2020: Added a link to the post about ADHD and creativity.
July 15th, 2020: Some minor formatting changes.
January 11, 2021: Minor formatting changes.