Depression, Creativity, and Religion: A Pilot Study of Christians in the Visual Arts

Article excerpt

Increased interest in the relationship between creativity and depression has led to popular and professional discussions of the experiences of highly creative persons who suffer from depression or mania. There has also been parallel interest in religion, spirituality, and religious coping in American culture and in professional mental health organizations, such as the American Psychological Association. It is surprising, then, that there has been relatively little attention paid to religious artists who suffer from depression. The purposes of the present study were to gather pilot data on (a) the experiences of religious artists who report symptoms of depression and mania, (b) whether depression and mania contribute in any positive ways to the work of artists, and (c) ways in which religion helps and/or hurts artists' abilities to cope with depression and mania.


The last few decades have seen increased interest in the relationship between creativity and depression. This recent interest has led to popular and professional discussions of the experiences of highly creative persons who suffer from depression or mania. According to Carreno and Goodnick (1998), the research on the relationship between creativity and mental illness falls into three major categories: (1) biographies of prominent creative persons throughout history, (2) empirical studies of living creative persons, and (3) empirical studies of creativity among the mentally ill or those at risk for mental illness. What follows summarizes some of the more important studies reviewed by Carreno and Goodnick, in additional to several other studies. We then briefly discuss the possible role religious coping may have among religious artists who contend with depression or mania.


Biographies of Prominent Creative Persons

Biographical studies of the relationship between creativity and mental illness include such renowned historical figures as Ludwig von Beethoven and Vincent van Gogh. For example, Jamison (1993) identified a number of historical figures who were believed to suffer from cyclothymia, depression, or bipolar disorder, including poets, such as Blake, Lord Byron, and Shelley; writers, such as Clemens, Greene, and Stevenson; composers, such as Berlioz, Handel, and Rossini; and artists, such as Gauguin, Gericault, and Pollock.

A more ambitious study was completed by Ludwig (1992), who examined biographies of 1,005 individuals in various professions in an attempt to understand this phenomenon. Using criteria from the International Classification of Diseases, 9th Edition (ICD-9) and the Creative Achievement Scale, Ludwig assessed mental illness and creativity respectively, grouping subjects according to their professions. Artists included subjects who identified themselves as fiction writers, poets, actors and musicians. When compared to other professions, artists had higher rates of psychopathology. Additional biographical studies include Schildkraut, Hirshfeld, and Murphy's (1994) study of a small sample of 20th century abstract expressionists, in whom elevated levels of depression were noted. Ellis' (1926) study found greater psychopathology not in those higher in creativity per se, but of those eminent among British politicians, artists, and scientists, where the incidence rates of mental illness are interpreted by some as suggestive of a link between eminence and psychopathology (cf., Walker, Koestner, & Hum, 1995).

Studies of Living Creative Persons

The second major area of research on the putative relationship between creativity and mental illness are studies of living artists. Again, these studies vary significantly in quality. For example, Andreasen (1987) examined 30 writers and 30 control subjects who were matched for age, Bender and education. Structured interviews were used to assess creativity and history and prevalence of mental illness in both subjects and their first-degree relatives. …