Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Creativity: The Diagnosis and the Cure

A literature review by: Julia Figliotti
Graduate Assistant
International Center for Studies in Creativity 

See the full article here


We're seeing more and more of it everyday: children and young teens being diagnosed with extreme mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and bipolar disorder.  They start on one medication, and before you know it, they're taking five.  The negative side effects make themselves known, and more medications are added to counteract those.  It's a vicious cycle, but a necessary one.  Right?

Actually, we very well might be looking at this the wrong way.  Mahnaz Sadre and Linda J. Brock, in their article "Systems in Conflict: Labeling Youth Creativity as Mental Illness," provided us with a beautiful new perspective on mental disorders in children and teenagers.  According to them, "the characteristics of creative people... may overlap [with] some symptoms of mental illness" (p. 358), thereby causing misdiagnoses of mental disorders in our creative youth (and supporting the myth that one must be "mad" in order to be creative).

But how can this be?  You would think that clinicians and mental health professionals would have confronted the possibility of misdiagnosing years ago.  Yet according to Sadre and Brock, many professionals in the field of mental health simply see what they have been trained to see: they end up "misunderstanding the creative expression of children and adolescents as symptoms of mental illness" (p. 359), a mistake which often leads to treatment and results in negative physical, emotional, and mental results.

Traits versus Symptoms

The foundation of this article lies in the similarities between the traits of a creative mind and the symptoms of a mental disorder.  Sadre and Brock cited several creativity specialists and researchers in their conglomeration of characteristics of creative people.  The brief overview suggests that a creative person may be (p. 361):
attracted to the mysterious
defiant of conventions^
independent in judgment and thinking
disturbed by organization*

Now let's compare these characteristics to many of the symptoms of ADHD, as seen in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV (Sadre & Brock, p. 365):

easily frustrated
lacking concentration*

We can also compare the characteristics of creative people to many of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, as seen in the DSM-IV (Sadre & Brock, p. 365)

racing thoughts
mood swings
oppositional defiance^

It's amazing to see the similarities of characteristics and symptoms (denoted with * for ADHD and ^ for bipolar disorder) between creativity and these mental disorders.  Sadre and Brock, aware of the negative effects that treatments for mental disorders had on adolescents, decided to focus on diagnoses of creativity for young patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD.  They gave three case examples to display the negative effects of misdiagnosing and the positive effects of creativity as a treatment.

Reversing Diagnoses using Creativity

Using five different case studies within the adolescent age range, Sadre and Brock introduced the horrors of youth misdiagnoses ("children as young as 3 years have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder" (p. 366)) and psychostimulant treatments.  One young man, diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 14, was able to use his interest in music to overcome his creative blocks and embrace his creative nature.  His diagnosis was ultimately removed by his psychiatrist, and he was weaned off of his two medications and graduated from high school with a sizeable scholarship to the college of his choice.

A pre-teen (diagnosed with bipolar disorder and epileptic seizures at age five) was able to channel her interest in drawing to help her overcome her dependence on medications.  She dropped four of her five prescriptions, staying only on the one that helped her control her seizures, and became more sociable.  She ultimately went on to work at a children's theater.

The cases go on - from a fifteen-year old boy diagnosed with bipolar who was weaned off of his medication after focusing his feelings on creative outlets such as poetry and painting, to an 8-year-old with an ADHD diagnosis who ultimately dropped four medications and learned to more productively channel his creativity and energy.  Sadre and Brock used these cases and others to exemplify how creativity can be misdiagnosed, and how a misdiagnosis can have extremely negative effects on young children and adolescents.  However, they also submit that, as seen in these cases, a misdiagnosis is not an irreversible error.  Children can (and do) bounce back into their creative states with the proper guidance and treatment.

It is true (as is usually the case in the field of creativity studies) that further research is needed to determine the truth behind the correlation of mental disorders and creativity in children and adolescents.  However, this study has paved the way to a more novel approach to the myth of madness.  Hopefully others will pick up where Sadre and Brock left off, and there will be fewer misdiagnoses in our creative youth.


Sadre, M. & Brock, L. J. (2008). Systems in conflict: Labeling youth creativity as mental illness. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 19(4), 358-378.

About Julia Figliotti

Julia is a current student in the Master's program at the International Center for Studies in Creativity.  Aside from working as a Graduate Assistant in the Creative Studies department and going to school full-time, Julia enjoys writing children's stories and short fiction.  She has a B.A. in Writing from SUNY Buffalo State and plans on completing her M.Sc. in Creativity in May 2014.

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