Mental illness & adaptive function

While mental illness can certainly cause a person a lot of difficulty functioning in our society, some characteristics of many psychiatric conditions can also be beneficial.

Focusing on an individual’s positive attributes rather than on the negative symptoms associated with mental illness can highlight the many incredible accomplishments of people living with mental health problems.

Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash is an advocate for this way of viewing mental illness and is also one of the most notable examples of a person who has achieved greatness while living with a psychiatric disorder.

Dr. Nash lives with paranoid schizophrenia and became widely known several years ago as the subject of the Oscar-winning film “A Beautiful Mind”. His life shows how even without being cured of his illness, he has lived a full life and contributed hugely to his field.

In a presentation at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting a couple of years ago, Dr. Nash used his famous game theory to analyze mental illness and his own experience by suggesting severe mental illness may exist in nature as a consequence of the diversification of species.

In his view, mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder might serve an adaptive function by its association with genius and creativity.

Psychiatric researchers have studied the connection between certain conditions and creativity for the past 20 years.

By now it is well known that rates for mental illness are much higher among artists than the general population. Some studies have suggested between 25 and 75 percent of artists have been treated for some form of mood disorder and suicide rates are unfortunately also much higher among this group than the general population.

Although the specific cause or nature of this link between creativity and mood disorders is not fully understood, there are several theories about it. Some researchers believe symptoms of mood disorders allow people to think more creatively.

For example, individuals with bipolar disorder may be more artistic during a manic episode. They tend to have greater confidence, more energy and motivation and are considerably less inhibited. In this frame of mind they are more apt to try new things and are less concerned about the opinion of others. These attributes can be beneficial to the creative process. The opposite occurs during a depressive episode. Artistic productivity tends to wax and wane in sync with shifts in mood for most bipolar artists.

Dr. Nash suggested this alteration in the way the brain makes associations may have come about out of an evolutionary need in our species. Using other species as examples, Nash discussed specialized members among ant or bee populations who are genetically different from their peers and serve specific functions.

Biologists theorize that genetic mutations serve to prepare a species to adapt to changing conditions or existing environmental circumstances. From this, Nash infers humans may be subject to mental illness due to a need for diversity in our patterns of mental function.

In spite of the possibility of enhanced creativity or different thought patterns in mental illness, it is still important to treat the negative symptoms associated with a serious psychiatric condition.

Most people cannot be very creatively productive while in the midst of a depressive, severely manic or psychotic episode. Insight is usually best when symptoms have abated or mood has normalized. Treatment does not prevent creativity, but it may allow a person to live longer with less disability and to be more productive.

More States of Mind articles

About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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