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14 famous people who have harnessed their mental ill health

by Sarah Graham
Tuesday 17 February 2015
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There is a long established belief that genius and creativity are in some way connected to mental ill health, with the link between "madness" and "genius" dating as far back as Aristotle. In the last century, these theories have suggested that creative professions may be particularly associated with the extreme moods of bipolar, and other depressive disorders. While these conditions can have a debilitating effect on your life, it is believed that they may also, when well managed, provide you with a unique insight, determination or creativity. We take a look at some of history's most famous success stories who've lived with mental health conditions, and harnessed them to achieve great and celebrated works. 

1. Stephen Fry

British actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry lives with bipolar disorder, and has spoken publicly about his experiences with the condition, including in the documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Speaking about bipolar's impact on his life and work, Fry said: "It's tormented me all my life with the deepest of depressions, while giving me the energy and creativity that perhaps has made my career."


2. Frank Sinatra

American singer and actor Frank Sinatra's expressive performances may also have benefited from the extreme highs and lows he experienced while living with bipolar. Describing the condition, Sinatra said: "Being an 18-karat manic depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation."


3. Florence Nightingale

It is believed that Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, also lived with bipolar disorder. Historians believe the condition contributed to her tireless devotion to her work.



4. Vincent van Gogh

Artist Vincent van Gogh is another creative believed to have been affected by bipolar or borderline personality disorder. In letters written to his brother, he described finding solace from his condition in his creative work. "How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work," he wrote in one letter. In another, he said: "It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things."


5. Ruby Wax

British American comedian Ruby Wax has incorporated her experiences of depression into much of her recent work. As part of the BBC's Headspace campaign, Wax hosted Ruby's Room, where she interviewed people with a variety of mental health conditions, and her 2010 show 'Losing It' dealt with her own experiences. In 2013 she completed a master's degree in mindfulness based cognitive therapy, having previously trained in psychotherapy and counselling. She later published a book on mindfulness, 'Sane New World', and in March will go on tour with a show of the same name.


6. Eminem 

American rapper Eminem has been open about his experiences of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and also attributes the condition to his artistic perfectionism, which has previously led to album releases being delayed. "With my music, I can tweak it forever to get it right, making changes no one else would even notice," he said.


7. David Beckham

Like Eminem, British football icon David Beckham has spoken about living with OCD, saying "I've got this obsessive compulsive disorder where I have to have everything in a straight line or everything has to be in pairs." Could his condition also have contributed to his famous habit of obsessively practising and honing his shots?


8. Sylvia Plath

American writer Sylvia Plath is so well known for her mental ill health that there's a theory named after her - 'The Sylvia Plath Effect', which refers to the link between creativity and mental ill health. It emerged following a 2002 study at California State University, which found that poets, especially female poets, were more likely than non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to be affected by a mental health condition. Both Plath's poetry and her iconic novel The Bell Jar deal with her personal experiences of depression, which she described as a "time of darkness, despair, and disillusion - so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be."

9. Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke is an English musician, most famous as the lead singer of Radiohead. He attributed the creation of Radiohead's classic album OK Computer to hypomania, a state of elevated mood associated with bipolar II disorder. 


10. Ludwig van Beethoven

German classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven was also affected by bipolar. He composed prolifically during his periods of mania, often writing several pieces of music at once, but it was during his depressive episodes that Beethoven composed his most celebrated work. At his lowest, Beethoven contemplated suicide, and for a time stopped composing almost entirely.


11. Charles Dickens

It is believed that British novelist Charles Dickens was affected by depression. According to friends of the author, he became down every time he started work on a new book, but the writing process appears to have held some therapeutic benefits for Dickens. His mood improved as he worked, until he was in a kind of mania by the time he finished.


12. Virginia Woolf

Like many of the creatives we've already mentioned, Virginia Woolf lived with bipolar II disorder. The euphoria of her manic periods fuelled her creativity, and the extreme high and low moods she experienced find expression in her characters. Woolf was suicidal during her periods of depression, and the 'rest cure' prescribed by her doctor is believed to have worsened her low mood by blocking her from writing when she most needed its therapeutic effects.


13. Sir Isaac Newton

British physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton was also affected by bipolar, and discovered calculus and the laws of mechanics and gravity during a manic episode. It is believed that he hardly slept, washed or ate during this time, and experienced memory loss, confusion and paranoia, as well as making these groundbreaking scientific discoveries.  


14. Winston Churchill

Finally, the wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill is another famous person to have lived with bipolar. Experts believe his bipolar mood swings contributed to his heightened energy, drive and impetuousness.

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 17 February 2015