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Musings for the Modern Mystic

Creativity and mental illness have long been connected. Here are 8 creative geniuses who struggled with mental disorders.

8 Historical Geniuses Who Had Mental Illnesses

Creativity and ‘mental illness‘ have been long known for their connection. Some of the greatest works in history emerged from the minds of those who suffered from (what would now be known as) distinct mental disorders.

The question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, is truly relevant here. After all, how are we to know whether the genius, creativity and ability stemmed from having mental illness– or vice versa?

The following people, though now passed, remain famous and revered for the incredible abilities they possessed. Yet each of them also struggled with various disorders during their lifetimes. 

1) Jack Kerouac

I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion. ~ Jack Kerouac Share on X

Known as one of the original Beat poets and preeminent authors of the 1950’s and 60’s, Kerouac and his friends traveled around the United States looking for a good time. While traveling, Jack and his cronies found mischief (and women) around every corner. Somehow though, this was not enough.

With a good time, often comes the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Jack himself was a severe alcoholic; he even appeared on a television program, Firing Line with William F. Buckley, while intoxicated. Eventually, the illness would take his life.

However, alcoholism was not the only ailment which afflicted the writer. Kerouac joined the Navy during World War II, but was dismissed after a doctor diagnosed him with “dementia praecox,” also known as schizophrenia. As such, he was dismissed from the Navy after serving for only 10 months. 

2) Van Gogh

I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. ~ Van Gogh Share on X

One of history’s most famous artists, Van Gogh was a Dutch painter in the 1800’s. His most well-known works include “Starry Night”, “Sunflowers II”, and his much-loved self-portrait. His style is easily identifiable as post-Impressionistic and neo-Impressionistic.

Van Gogh was not always known to be afflicted with mental illness. In 1886, he moved to Paris where met several other painters, including Paul Gauguin who would eventually become his roommate. It was not until a quarrel with Gauguin that he would begin to show signs of his ailment — what would eventually come to be known as bipolar disorder. During this argument, he famously cut off a piece of his left ear and gifted it to a local prostitute. This was the beginning of the end. Only a few years later, in the depths of a severe depression, he would shoot himself in the chest, dying from the resulting injuries in a matter of days.

Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime(!), and was considered a washout lunatic, yet history has come to renown him as one of the most important artists to have ever lived.

3) Ernest Hemingway

 Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know. ~ Hemingway Share on X

Hemingway is known as one of the most prominent American authors of all time. He won the Nobel prize for literature for the book, “The Old Man and the Sea,” in 1954, but the work was only one of many novels he penned over the course of his lifetime. He was a great traveler and saw many parts of the world, including Cuba, where his Nobel prize-winning work was set.

A heavy-drinker and possible narcissist, Hemingway struggled with several different issues, including a traumatic brain injury. He was known to have a mood disorder, possibly bipolar, which ultimately led to his death. The comorbidity, or dual-diagnosis, of his alcoholic tendencies and mental issues proved to be a deadly combination. He would use alcohol to self-medicate his emotional problems, which in turn created more problems for himself.

Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho, at the age of 61. Despite the great loss of his life, he will forever be in the hearts of millions who have known and loved his works, and the indelible mark they left on the world.

4) Camille Claudel

“I am in no mood to be deceived any longer by the crafty devil and false character whose greatest pleasure is to take advantage of everyone.” ~ Camille Claudel

Claudel may not be as well-known as Van Gogh, but perhaps that was because her work was crafted in 19th and early 20th century Paris. Back then, women were not as welcome in the art world, or perhaps any part of the world. During that time, women were simply not as important as men, and were treated as such.

Camille Claudel was known most for her sculptures. She apprenticed for a man named Rodin whom she eventually had a love affair with. Her life became tragic after the love affair broke apart and her master left her behind for a woman he had a long-standing relationship with. Shortly after, she began to accuse him of bringing a conspiracy against her.

In 1913, she was committed by her mother to an asylum, with paranoid schizophrenia being cited as the cause. Although there was some evidence that she did not need to be locked up, she lived in the asylum for thirty years, until her death in 1943.

5) Abraham Lincoln

When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. ~ Lincoln Share on X

Every American in the Union may not know who Calvin Coolidge was, but ask any person around and he can surely tell you who Abraham Lincoln was. However, not every person will be aware that Honest Abe suffered a great deal throughout his lifetime. Perhaps this was why he was such a gentle, kind, and caring person, and quite possibly the most important president we have ever had.

Abe Lincoln experienced his first bout of depression after losing the love of his life, Ann, to an illness which sickened farm animals and passed it along to humans who consumed them. He also lost his mother at a very young age, forcing he and his sister to live in poverty with a drunken father. When he became forced to marry his fiancée, Mary Todd Lincoln, in 1842, Lincoln again became very depressed. Todd was also the sufferer of mental illness, most likely schizophrenia.

While he stayed married to her for the entirety of his life, he avoided her at all costs, riding into other towns as a lawyer, and often not coming home for weeks. However, without her great desire to see him as president, America may have never experienced the nobility and strength he displayed as a leader, changing the history of the country indelibly. 

6) Charles Darwin

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts. ~ Darwin Share on X

One of the most famous scientists of all time, Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution. While spending time on the Galapagos Islands in the 1830’s, he noticed the differences in several types of animal species. One of the most prominent was in the tortoises, which had varying characteristics from those of other places. This led him to believe that creatures’ habitats helped them to adapt based on their environments.

However, despite his phenomenal achievements, Darwin also struggled with mental illness, most notably, agoraphobia and panic disorder. At age 16, he had already begun to show signs of mental problems, and by age 30, he had become an invalid shut-in.

One of the symptoms Darwin displayed in his agoraphobia was depersonalization, where the person becomes detached from his own reality as himself and his own body.

Darwin is known to have died from heart failure, yet there are also theories that he may have passed away from a disease known as Chagas.

7) Tennessee Williams

We're all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life. ~ Tennessee Williams Share on X

Thomas Lanier Williams III, or “Tennessee” Williams, was one of the foremost playwrights of the 20th century. Perhaps best known for “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie”, he spent decades writing works which were often harshly criticized by the media for his frank depictions of topics which were taboo for the time. This did not stop him from writing, however.

Yet, his difficult challenges, both as a writer and a homosexual, came with a price. When he lost his lover to cancer, he found himself struggling more and more with depression. He used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate his deepening issues, but as most anyone knows, this never helps.

He was hospitalized for his mental illness in 1969, admitted by his brother, yet was released a few years later and continued to write. His drinking and drug use continued as well. Williams passed away in 1983 in a hotel room, surrounded by half-empty bottles of alcohol and pills. And while the drugs and alcohol failed to eliminate the pain, Williams’ legacy can still be found in what many consider some of the most important plays in American history.

8) Janis Joplin

I think I think too much. That’s why I drink! ~ Janis Joplin Share on X

A member of the “27 Club”, Janis Joplin remains one of the most popular and well-known singers in history. Her heart-felt lyrics and soulful, inimitable voice remain untouched by any of the artists who’ve followed in the near half-century since her passing. 

Her struggles began as a girl growing up in Texas, where she was largely shunned by the other kids in high school due to her interest in eclectic, artistic things and her refusal to join in the racism still heavily present after the recent ban on segregation. She was also overweight at the time and suffered from bad skin, both of which were the cause of routine taunting from her peers.

Extremely versatile in her abilities, she was heavily influenced by the blues, jazz and beat poets that came before her, and though still young at the time her star began to rise, her music and the energy behind it seemed to belie her youth, with many citing her as an ‘old soul’. 

Yet as loved as she became, it seemed as though it would never be enough. For the entirety of her adult life, Janis struggled to find a companion who could fill that void. In turn, she drank heavily and abused drugs — including heroin — which ultimately led to her early demise, passing away in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970 after an overdose. 

Heather Harper
Heather Harper


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