World Bipolar Day: Honoring Van Gogh—Are Creativity and Madness Linked?

Last Updated: 6 Aug 2018

We are all familiar with the story of the “tortured artist” but is there a unique creative force in the mood swings of bipolar disorder?

Photo: MatiasEnElMundo/Getty Images


By Carin Meyer


By the time I was sixteen years old, I had convinced myself that I was a creative genius. I knew nothing yet of bipolar disorder, but the budding manias of my teenage years had flowered into an obsessive pursuit of literary greatness. Inspired by poets like William Blake and Emily Dickinson, I wrote constantly, often into the early morning hours. After writing page after page in my journals, I shoved the pieces of paper into my very own secret box.

When I think about those years, and then the eventual tumultuous years of my early twenties, I often ask myself: Was such intense creativity the result of madness? Or was madness the result of creativity? I ask the same question when I consider the lives and creative contributions made by the many great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who may have had bipolar disorder.

On March 30, when we bring awareness to the brain-based disorder with World Bipolar Day, we also honor the memory of Vincent Van Gogh, whose birthday falls on the same date. As the epitome of the “mad artist” and creative genius, many scholars believe that Van Gogh most likely suffered throughout his life from bipolar disorder. For him, and for many other artists, madness and creativity has been inextricably linked.

Creative writing has often saved me, but the sheer force of one of my surges of creative energy has also knocked me sideways. For several years after my teenaged obsession with becoming the greatest writer who ever lived, I simply would not write. Again, creativity led to madness, or madness led to creativity, but either way I knew what might follow the great expansiveness of my thoughts while writing. When I wrote, I probed unexplored corners of my mind where madness and creativity hid together, and I had quickly learned that this kind of exploration ultimately led to the confusion and pain of mania or depression.

For me, normal functioning leaves me in a known, common area of my mind, where I experience the more predictable emotions and thoughts of everyday life. When I am highly creative, or at certain times when I am cycling, I often explore areas of my mind that are usually inaccessible—whether I want to or not. Somehow, during these times, I can move beyond the cognitive firewalls that we have installed in our minds for our own safety.

The act of creating is the act of accessing what we usually call the imagination, to find ideas beyond what we can simply discover with our own senses. Great artists and writers throughout history who may have had bipolar disorder, like Van Gogh and Blake, made their contributions to art by accessing these farther reaches of the mind, but their periods of creative productivity were also shaded by periods of extreme suffering.

In my life, my poetry and my work in literary non-fiction got me into graduate school for creative writing—twice. Although I could create the poems and the memoir that resulted in my admission, I could not maintain my ability to function at that level, because my bipolar disorder was unmanaged. In one case, I did not enroll, and in the other, ten years after that first admission to graduate school, I resigned.

I believe there is a place of enchantment somewhere along the arc of a bipolar mood swing. For me, it can be a place of creative magic, when I am elevated and exploring my imagination, but have not yet gone too far. I have learned that I cannot create when I am simply trying to survive, when my mood swings are out of control. I have also learned, after many years, that creativity does not have to lead to madness, and madness does not always lead to creativity.


Learn more:

Bipolar Mania, Hypomania, and the Desire to Escape

Self-Tracking: Moving Forward After a Bipolar Episode


About the author
Carin Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan who works in public relations. Her academic writing has won numerous awards and her science writing and other articles have been published in university magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. She has a blog at She enjoys writing essays about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Carin has drafted a book about bipolar disorder, The Smartest Girl in the World, for which she is currently seeking publication.
  1. I have made a lot of art in my 64 years. Mostly when I was symptomatic-high or low. Now I write. I am afraid my journal/memoir I want eventually to publish will just be an embarassment. I have known and know very good writers. When I think I’m a good writer and on a good path writing I wonder if I am delusional to think what I write is good.

    Oh well, journaling if not something that ends up being published and appreciated is a good coping tool. Maybe I should just do it as something personal.

    I have thought in my life that I am a creative genius. I somehow can’t get this notion out of my mind.
    I guess I have to just take things one at a time, practice coping skills and be happy being an ordinary person-not a creative genius.

    After all is said and done I have to laugh at myself. Having bipolar and thinking I am a creative genius is just par for the course. So LOL, take advantage of the fact that I now have friends and interesting things to do, write because it is an outlet and forget about becoming famous.

  2. Your articles are very helpful. It makes me happy (even proud) to think of the many accomplished people throughout history who had bipolar depression.

  3. I only paint when I am hypo manic or in a mixed state. It does not keep my thoughts and feelings away. I use painting to get the feelings and thoughts out of me in an effort to stop the never ending spiral of thoughts. My last episode in the Spring of 2017 had me working on 12 different paintings at one time. My state would dictate which one i would work on, in anger i couldn’t paint my euphoric painting and when euphoric i couldn’t work on my suicide collection. I can say when I am stable i have zero desire to be creative. I too wish there was a drug that kept me in a safe hypo manic state; that is when i feel truly alive.

    1. Yes!

  4. Interesting article by Carin Meyer! Can’t wait to read her book. Julie Fast’s Loving Someone With Bipolar was very interesting.

    I suffer from bipolar 1 disorder, but fortunately the only time that I have been depressed was when on too many psychotropic drugs. I have found that the only time I can become energetic, creative & paint well is when hypomanic. That has been when not taking any psychotropic drugs, or when on a low enough dose of a psych drug. I haven’t been able to paint since 2013, because I am too fatigued & lethargic from taking 40 mg Latuda & 500 mg Divalproex Sodium (Epival) per day. I would guess that Van Gogh suffered from bipolar rather than from schizophrenia, & that because he could paint two paintings per day when not ill with mania or depression, I guess he must have spent a fair amount of time in a hypomanic mood. Sometimes I imagine what else Van Gogh could have accomplished had he lived another 30 years or so, seem as though he had already completed over 1000 works of art by the age of 37? Hypomania can be a wonderful state with high energy, lots of motivation, & high creativity. However, it’s too bad that hypomania almost always leads to the dreadful manic state, followed by severe depression for some people. If we people with bipolar disorder could be given a psych drug that would just keep us in a nice not too hypomanic state that would be great! As for Paige 14’s comment re: painting for her is a distraction that keeps her thoughts & feelings away, I have never painted for that reason. I’ve just painted because it feels really great to start with a big white blank canvas & a few paints where we can create something beautiful within a few hours. I gave my best painting to my shrink who spent four years trying to convince me that I needed to keep taking her prescription, & if I didn’t she’d just have me dragged back to the loonie bin by the crisis centre. Three loonie trips later, I finally agreed that she was right! I gave her such a hard time that I don’t know why she didn’t just give up on me! Guess she likes complicated cases. Anyway, she has her painting hanging up in her outpatient office & she says that she gets lots of compliments on it. It is a 36×36 inch really colourful reproduction of an Emily Carr painting called A Tree in Autumn that I painted when hypomanic. I told her that I can only paint well when hypomanic, so if I ever do start painting again, she’ll up my prescription. I really don’t miss painting much as it is quite a lot of work & it’s so messy. Besides, I’ve run out of walls to hang art on. I’m trying to write a memoir re: my very long journey with bipolar 1 disorder, how two shrinks misdiagnosed me, & how one QUACK had me on five different drugs, then all the professionals thought I had DEMENTIA! If you haven’t read Natasha Tracy’s blogs or her book Lost Marbles, she sure is interesting! She also has several videos posted online. Mara

  5. Painting is is a distraction that keeps my thoughts and feelings away. Total concentration on the work, along with music playing, allows a freedom from painful bipolar symptoms. I’m wondering if artists become artists because this is the way they cope. The problem is when the creative desire goes away the artist feels worthless. So, they have to keep working and working, no matter what to hold on to their sanity.

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