Is there really a link between great artistic talent and mental illness, especially in comedy?

This week, we lost a great entertainer in the form of Robin Williams. I wanted to take a step back from my normal innovation-focused blog posts and cover a topic which is in many ways more important: mental health.

My favorite memory of Robin Williams is probably his voice of the Genie in Aladdin. I loved it as a child, and it encapsulates so much of what made people fall in love with him: a 1000-joke-an-hour high-octane manic rollercoaster ride with no room for embarrassment, which you could also see in his standup and late-night-TV appearances.

The news coming out about Robin Williams is that he committed suicide after suffering from depression. The man who made millions laugh was tortured by demons on the inside. And in the world of comedy, he is unfortunately not alone in this aspect. Other notable comedians who died young due to suicide or substance abuse include:

  • John Belushi
  • Chris Farley
  • Richard Jeni
  • Mitch Hedberg

However, add to that list some famous comics who have also admitted openly to suffering from mental health problems like depression and you can add in Jim Carrey, Stephen Fry, Dave Chapelle, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and many others.

So is there any truth to this myth of the Sad Clown, happy on the outside but struggling on the inside?

And what about the myth of the tormented artist? Do mental health issues in fact go hand in hand with creativity?

The evidence

The first thing to realise is that part of the perception is due to the fact that entertainers or famous artists are by definition known by more people than the average profession. They, along with professions like sports and politics, rely on them becoming known by people outside their immediate circle of friends, and outside of their own profession (most current famous scientists are well-known by other scientists rather than the average man on the steet). The importance of this fact is that when someone asks for an example of a condition, such as mental illness, the answers people give are most likely to be from famous people, and in this case especially famous artists like Vincent Van Gogh or Virginia Woolf. Because the famous examples come from the artistic community, people then begin to see a pattern.

This has also led to some research which has aimed to find a link between mental illness and creativity. For example, Nancy Andreasen found that 80% of the writers she interviewed had some form of mood disorder (like bi-polar or depression), compared to 30% of a control study. However, studies like this have been heavily criticised within the scientific community for using a small sample set which is biased to find the result you are looking for.

In fact, large scale studies of 1.2 million people in Sweden over 40 years, found no major difference in the likelihood of suffering mental illnesses between people working in professions requiring creativity and those that do not.

Mental illness does not make someone more likely to join a creative profession, and is not more prevalent in the creative professions than average.

However, there is one very interesting aspect which the study also revealed. Scott Barry Kaufman did a wonderful analysis of the study, and notes the shocking insight that people in the creative professions were much more likely to have a first-degree relative with a mental disorder (like schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder and anorexia nervosa). There could therefore be some evidence to the concept of being around someone with a mental disorder (to some degree) growing up potentially enhancing your own brain’s ability to continue seeing things in a novel way and forming new connections between existing ideas, but at the same time maintaining its protective factors necessary to steer the chaotic, potentially creative storm.

Psychosis in Comedians

And finally, this brings us to comedians. A very specific subset of artists. A May 2014 study in the British Journal of Psychology titled Psychotic Traits in Comedians asked 523 comedians from the US, UK and Australia, (and also 364 actors and 831 random people) questions which were used to measure four sets of psychotic traits:

  • Unusual experiences (belief in telepathy and paranormal events)
  • Cognitive disorganisation (distractibility and difficulty in focusing thoughts)
  • Introvertive anhedonia (reduced ability to feel social and physical pleasure, including an avoidance of intimacy)
  • Impulsive non-conformity (tendency towards impulsive, antisocial behaviour)

The study found that comedians did in fact score higher on each one of these traits than the general population, indicating they are more prone to psychosis.

Comedians apparently do suffer from psychotic traits more than the average population.

Why comedians? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s down to the positive feeling you get when you can make other people laugh. Having myself been an improvised comedian, I can tell you of the sheer joy and pride you feel when you can make a room full of people happy, even if it’s just temporarily. When you read interviews with a lot of famous comedians, often they will talk about how they used humour and comedy as a crutch, to take them away from feelings of insecurity. Some of the comedians who have admitted to feeling depressed have even described performing comedy as a way of escaping the painful situation they were feeling in their own lives. When they were on stage, they could pretend to be this positive, happy person.

Unfortunately, Robin Williams’ depression was so severe that it destroyed him from the inside out. The world has lost a great man.

Don’t forget, if you’re ever feeling the pressure of the world, there are phone lines you can call to speak to someone. Some of them are listed here.

What are your favorite Robin Williams memories? Let me know in the comments: