It was incredibly sad to wake up to the news that Robin Williams had taken his life. He was a profound influence in my world. My earliest memories of him are as Mork in the 70’s / 80’s show, Mork & Mindy. Robin Williams was one of those people who gave my mind permission to explore.

His suicide changed the normal conversation around me, as people contributed their own thoughts on this difficult-to-talk-about topic. I remembered once listening to someone tell me about how they had unsuccessfully attempted to take their own life. While I remember very little of what I was told, I do remember walking away knowing I would never ever dare comment on the circumstances that may or may not have lead to someone taking their life.

Link Between Creatives and Suicide

Part of the conversation centred around the link between creative people and suicide. It seems that it’s become an accepted that a link does exist. There’s always a large pool of anecdotal evidence of increased suicide amongst creatives. Lists are taken out and discussed. One of the better known lists is the 27 Club.

The 27 Club includes popular musicians, artists, actors and athletes who have died at age 27, often as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, or violent means such as homicide, suicide, or transportation-related accidents.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in, and fascinated by creative people. What makes them who they are and why they see the world differently to other people around them? There are some very interesting studies and papers written by people who share the same curiosity as I do. And there is evidence to suggest a link between creatives, mental illness and suicide.

Mental Illness, Suicide and Creativity

For example:

In 2012, researchers at Karolinska Institute in Sweden gathered census data representing almost 1.2 million patients with schizoaffective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa and suicide. The specific aims of this study were to:

  1. investigate if creativity is associated with all psychiatric disorders or restricted to those with psychotic features, and
  2. to specifically investigate authors in relationship to psychopathology Mental illness, suicide and creativity.

Their findings were: Except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric disorders than controls. However, being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. In addition, we found an association between creative professions and first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and for siblings of patients with autism.

Click here to read the full paper: Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study

Comment on the study from The Atlantic:

When the researchers looked specifically at authors, they found that they are overrepresented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

Interestingly, the close relatives of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and, to a lesser extent, autism, were more likely to be employed in creative fields.

“In general, being an accountant or a relative to an accountant meant negative or no association to the psychopathologies investigated.”

CNN’s comment on the same study…

They also found that people in creative professions were more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia and autism.

That is significant. Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.

I have no idea why Robin Williams chose to end his life? But all week I’ve been reminded of a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert at TED on Creativity, world view and the pressure creatives feel when their ‘well runs dry’. I’m not sure if some of her thoughts add or subtract from the Robin Williams conversation, but it does leave me with lots to consider.