Resiliency and Creativity in the Face of Great Odds


Is creativity augmented or inhibited by mental illness? Insights from 4 case studies of troubled yet brilliant minds.

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In an APA 2016 session moderated by Thomas Newmark, MD, presenters John P. O’Reardon, MD, and Michelle Nagurney, MD, discussed the troubled yet brilliant lives of Abraham Lincoln, Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gogh, and Robin Williams.

Mental illness and creativity have long been linked in the public imagination. Bipolar disease in particular is often seen as an engine for creative genius. Scholarly treatments of the subject include those by Kay Redfield Jamison and Nancy Andreasen.

Dr O’Reardon presented the case of Abraham Lincoln, whose law partner commented that “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Lincoln is believed to have had MDD with baseline dysthymia. Both of his parents suffered from depression, and Lincoln endured the loss of his mother at an early age.

Lincoln first experienced a major depressive episode in his early 20s and was kept on suicide watch. He endured such cutting-edge treatments as bloodletting, blistering of the temples, and purging.

James Bell said of Lincoln that he was “within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life.” Later stressors included the deaths of 3 of his 4 children at early ages and his tumultuous relationship with Mary Todd.

On his wedding day a boy asked him where he was headed, to which he responded, “To hell I suppose.” Dr O’Reardon notes that a theme throughout Lincoln’s tribulations was enormous community support. Lincoln’s famous sense of humor and sheer ambition are also thought to have contributed to his resiliency.

Dr Nagurney presented the tortured life of Sylvia Plath, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Bell Jar. She was haunted by the death of her father at age 8 and first tried to cut her throat at age 10. She was described as highly competitive, popular, and perfectionistic. She exhibited periods of both severe depression and euphoria. Friends noted that at times she would exhibit hypersexuality and did not appear to be herself.

Some of the world’s greatest achievements have been accomplished by individuals who endured overwhelming emotional obstacles.

Plath said that it was as if “my life were magically run by two electric currents, joyous positive and despairing negative.” She was also plagued by chronic suicidal ideation and a pattern of idealization/devaluation suggestive of borderline personality disorder. Her life was complicated by a whirlwind marriage to Ted Hughes, whom she met and married within 4 months.

Extreme devaluation was never more explicit than in her poem “Daddy.” In it she compares her father to vampires, Nazis, and devils. This was also thought to address abandonment by her husband. She committed suicide by gas asphyxiation in 1963.

Dr Nagurney posits that Plath’s writing in some ways proved maladaptive because it emphasized victimhood and the lack of empowerment and meaning. She discussed Bonanno’s parameters of resiliency: attachment style, identity continuity, and rumination. In each area, Plath seems to have been set up for a poor prognosis.

Artist Vincent Van Gogh had a brief prolific career: he often produced a painting per day. He is widely thought to have suffered from bipolar illness. Van Gogh’s life was marked by romantic frustration, and unrequited love was a constant stressor.

A prostitute named Rachel was the recipient of the infamous ear. He was treated by a motley crew of physicians, including an internist, an ophthalmologist (who proclaimed him cured after a stay at St. Remy), and an obstetrician.

Van Gogh spent his last years in an asylum and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen at age 37. The Starry Night was composed from memory during his confinement at St. Remy.

Abraham Lincoln first experienced a major depressive episode in his early 20s and was kept on suicide watch.

Well-known comedian/actor Robin Williams still lingers in our collective consciousness. He was a lonesome, shy youth who later blossomed in high school and won a full scholarship to Julliard. He stood out in a class that included Christopher Reeve and William Hurt.

Reeve commented that Williams was like “an un-tied balloon that was inflated and immediately released.” He came to be known for his high-energy comedy in the 70s and 80s. Around this time he began abusing cocaine and alcohol.

Debate continues as to whether Williams’ act demonstrated pure manic excitement or shrewd calculation. He gained fame for movies such as Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar. The precise nature of Williams’ mental illness has been difficult to decipher. He was never hospitalized, had no prior suicide attempts, and was never forthcoming about his symptoms.

No official biography exists. Dr O’Reardon suggests Williams may have had what he calls a hyperthermic or “Tigger” temperament, which includes high energy, talkativeness, self-assuredness, grandiosity, and novelty seeking.

It remains an open question whether creativity is generally augmented or inhibited by the effects of mental illness. As we have seen, some of the world’s greatest achievements have been accomplished by individuals who endured overwhelming emotional obstacles. In these cases (especially that of Lincoln), common sources of resilience included involvement in a cause greater than self and a protective sense of humor.

Andreasen N. The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. New York, NY: Dana Press; 2005.
Jamison KR. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York, NY: The Free Press; 1993.

Shenk J. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2005.


Dr Williams is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Health Behavior and Medical Director of the Inpatient Service at the Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Regents University, in Augusta, Georgia.

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