It Can Happen To Anyone

img_anyonePeople with mood disorders can achieve and succeed in the most competitive and demanding careers when not restricted or disabled by their condition.

As depression and bipolar disorder become less stigmatised we can expect more and more ‘successful’ people, be they professionals, business people or politicians, to discuss and identify how they have dealt with their mood disorder.

Henry Lawson – Portrait by John Longstaff, Melbourne, April 1900

Famous people who have suffered from a Mood Disorder
F Scott Fitzgerald (Writer) Anthony Hopkins (Actor) Brooke Shields (Actress)
Janet Jackson (Musician) Bill Joel (Musician) Sylvia Plath (Writer)
Vivien Leigh (Actress) Elton John (Musician) Ashely Judd (Actress)
Claude Monet (Artist) Richard Nixon (US President) Brian Wilson (Musician)
John Denver (Musician) Diana Spencer (Princess of Wales) Jim Carrey (Actor)
Robbie Williams (Musician) Abraham Lincoln (US President) Winona Ryder (Actress)
Dawn Fraser (Australian Swimmer) Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister)

Genius v Madness

Although bipolar disorder has been thought to bring with it some creative blessings, Dr. James Potash, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Johns Hopkins University observed:

The crucial caveat to that is, while there may be some real positives, the biggest picture issue is that the disease can be so disabling and sometimes deadly that, in spite of whatever positives are associated with it, you absolutely do need to get it treated.

There has long been speculation of the link between genius and madness, which can be traced to the writings of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle for example held the view that there was ‘no great genius without a mixture of madness’.

Edgar Allen Poe the 19th-century author, who is thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, once said: ‘Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…’

Importantly, a study of more than 700,000 adults established that those who scored high or top grades at school were 4 times more likely to develop bipolar disorder than those with average grades. Those who studied literature or music were in the highest risk group. For example, the poet Sylvia Plath, artist Van Gogh and writer Virginia Woolf, are widely believed to have had bipolar.

The study was completed at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, with collaboration from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

In recent years psychiatrists have suggested that genius and madness are linked to underlying degenerative neurological disorders. The difficulty has been that the combination of genius and severe mental illness are rare, and high intelligence or achievement is subjectively defined.

The study, compared the final school exam grades of all Swedish pupils aged 15-16 from 1988 to 1997, with hospital records showing admissions for bipolar disorder up to age 31. There was a fourfold increased risk of the condition for pupils with outstanding exam results particularly in humanities and, to a lesser extent, in science subjects. Conversely, school students with low exam grades also had an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder later in life.

The researchers suggest there may be two distinct groups of people with the condition – high achievers, in whom mania raises their game – and low achievers, especially those with low scores in sport and handicrafts indicating poor motor skills.

The findings of the study are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and conclude that mania may improve intellectual and academic performance, accounting for the link with ‘genius’. People with hypomania are often inventive and witty, appearing to have ‘enhanced access to vocabulary, memory and other cognitive resources’. They tend to have exaggerated emotional responses which may ‘facilitate their talent in art, literature or music’. In a manic state, individuals have ‘extraordinary levels of stamina and a tireless capacity for sustained concentration’.

The association between genius and madness was stronger in men than in women however it was noted that ‘Although having A-grades increases your chance of bipolar disorder in later life, we should remember that the majority of people with A-grades enjoy good mental health.’

Professor Gordon Parker, Executive Director of the Black Dog Institute is of the view that bipolar disorder is more common in high achievers. There have been informal studies suggesting that ‘if you have bipolar disorder or you have it in the family, you’re distinctly more likely to end up in Who’s Who’.

In April 2008 the then NSW Treasurer, Michael Costa, spoke of his struggle with bipolar disorder and rugby league star Tim Smith revealed he had it, too. League legend Andrew Johns has published a book about his own struggle with the condition, though Professor Parker emphasises that at times Johns felt it gave him an advantage: ‘When he was high, he could see openings in the field that no other back could see, and he would be through in a flash.’

Professor Parker states that for most people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, medication is the best option. In both bipolar disorder I, which involves psychotic episodes, and the ‘milder’ bipolar disorder II, sometimes known as bipolar lite, depression can be so severe it leads to suicide. So if a particular drug causes feelings of flatness, it is best to try another. ‘It’s a suck-it-and-see process,’ Professor Parker says.

Stephen Fry

In the BBC 2 documentary ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’ Stephen Fry spoke about his bipolar disorder. He said ‘It’s infuriating I know, but I do get a huge buzz out of the manic side. I rely on it to give my life a sense of adventure, and I think most of the good about me has developed as a result of my mood swings. It’s tormented me all my life with the deepest of depressions, while giving me the energy and creativity that perhaps has made my career.’

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s journals lend support to the hypothesis that she suffered from bipolar disorder. She was required to cope with intensely painful subjects such as dysfunctional relationships, shock treatment and suicide. She died by thrusting her head into a gas over. Many scholars have attempted to unlock the enigma of her suicide.

Vincent Van Gogh

Throughout his life, Vincent Van Gogh the artist showed signs of mental instability. Various accounts of his life indicate that he may have been suffering with bipolar disorder, depression, epilepsy and delusions. During December 1888, he experienced a psychotic episode in which he threatened the life of a personal friend and fellow artist, and cut off a piece of his own left ear before offering it as a gift to a prostitute.

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