The link between creative brilliance and mental illness has long held the
world's fascination but is not fully understood from a scientific point of
view, according to one of the nation's leading experts on bipolar disorder and
an author who has written on the subject from both professional and personal
"It's not only mania but depression that is important in creative
work" Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., told members of a supper club run by
mental health consumers in Bethesda, Md., last November.
Jamison is author of several well-known books, including An Unquiet
Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, about her own experiences with
bipolar disorder, and Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the
Creative Mind, in which she discusses the lives and works of artists and
writers such as Vincent Van Gogh, Lord Byron, and Robert Lowell and how their
creative works may have been affected by symptoms of mania and depression. She
also co-wrote Manic-Depressive Illness with Frederick Goodwin, M.D.,
considered a classic work.
The Bethesda Beatniks supper club got its start in 2000 when some friends
began going out to dinner together after meetings of the local chapter of the
Depressive and Related Disorders Association in Bethesda. Today the supper
club has about 15 regular attendees who gather twice a month at restaurants in
Bethesda. Overall, more than 1,000 consumers and mental health advocates have
attended the dinners and are on the Beatniks' mailing list, according to"
Beatnik" Pete Warner, who established the supper club and has run
it ever since.FIG1
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., notes that treatment for bipolar disorder
does not have to interrupt the creative process for artists with bipolar
In addition to dinners, the club hosts picnics, music and visual arts
events, and poetry festivals throughout the year. Most of the members have
serious mental illness, and they and their family members gather to socialize
with and support one another (Psychiatric News, April 15, 2005).
Jamison was invited to a dinner of the Beatniks to discuss the link between
mental illness and creativity and to answer questions from attendees.
Jamison noted that while mania generates a plethora of ideas, depression"
cools the ardor, forces a slower pace, and tends to put into
perspective the thoughts and observations generated during more enthusiastic
She added, "No one would ever accuse someone with mania of being
Jamison also noted that many treatment strategies for bipolar disorder pay
insufficient heed "to the fleeting benefits that bipolar disorder can
bestow among certain people," such as the creative energy that can come
from manic moods.
"Lithium and other mood stabilizers are extremely effective for
controlling mania and depression, but in some patients these drugs can limit
emotional range," she said.
These days, however, people can be maintained on lower doses of medications
than in the past. "It can be possible to maximize [creative] intensity
by choosing the lowest possible dosage" without compromising mental
health, she said.
Jamison also explained that too much intensity can be a bad thing.
"There is accumulating evidence that the brain changes after a person
experiences several psychotic episodes," she remarked. Brain studies
reveal that the brains of people who have experienced one psychotic episode
are structurally different from those who have experienced more than five
episodes, for instance.
She likened these structural changes to those that take place during a
heart attack, leaving a damaged muscle behind. "We tend to take our
hearts more seriously than we do our brains," she noted.
Warner told Psychiatric News, "Not only has Dr. Jamison, a
consumer herself, been a very vocal, steadfast, and generous champion for the
consumer movement; the standing-room-only crowd at our November event was
almost entirely due to her presence—her reputation preceded
More information about the Bethesda Beatniks supper club is posted