Is there a link between creativity and madness? Would Robin Williams have been a comic genius if he hadn't had a devastating mood disorder?
The official answer is that there is no connection. The idea that geniuses are divinely crazy, or that mental illness confers some sort of special gift, is a sad cliché that should have died with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Many great artists lead normal, happy lives, and many ordinary people suffer. Mental illness is not romantic or exalting. It's a miserable affliction that sucks the life out of you, and we'd all be better off without it.
Or would we?
Jonathan Winters, who was known as the funniest man in America before Mr. Williams came along, thought his illness and his gift were inseparable. A brilliant improviser, he too was afflicted with manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder), and was once hospitalized for months. The doctors recommended electroshock but he refused. "I need that pain – whatever it is – to call upon it from time to time, no matter how bad it was," he once told NPR.
Spike Milligan, the legendary British comedian, was another famous manic depressive. "It's a gift and a curse," he said. "You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else."
Here's what Russell Brand (another depressive funny man) said this week about Mr. Williams's genius: "The chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder, was in fact harvested madness."
The anecdotal evidence is tremendously suggestive. We all know the list: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. Nancy Andreason, a neuroscientist who studies creativity, found that 80 per cent of the writers she interviewed had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives. She concludes that both creativity and mental illness run in families.
"Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see," she wrote in The Atlantic in June. The speculation is that creativity and mental illness share overlapping mental processes – the same traits that make people more risk-seeking, nonconformist and open to experience also make them more vulnerable.
If anyone fit the stereotype for manic depression, it was Mr. Williams. His frantic improvisations took comedic mania to new heights. Like many compulsively funny people, he was always on. You can never have a normal conversation with them because they never drop the mask to let you in. He was also frantically busy. In his last days, he had an enormous number of projects on the go, some of them desperate. (Mrs. Doubtfire 2?) Friends said he needed the money. Or maybe he was just afraid to stop, lest his demons catch up with him.
In the past few years, we have rebranded depression as a disease, which is on the whole a good thing. We no longer blame the victim for not pulling up his socks. But the disease label, too, is a misnomer – I'd prefer to call it an affliction. Most diseases have courses that are more or less predictable, and treatments that are more or less effective. Depression does not. Medication sometimes works, sort of, for a while, unless it doesn't. Cognitive therapy can be helpful too. But sometimes all the self-talk in the world can't dispel the darkness. The truth is that while depression is much more widely recognized than it used to be, our treatments for it aren't all that much better than they were 60 years ago.
And it's stubborn. About one-third of depressed people will get better and often – not always – stay that way. Two-thirds of those who partially recover will fall back. A few won't make it. Here's what Mr. Williams told Diane Sawyer (he was speaking about alcohol addiction, but it's true for depression, too): "It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, 'It's fine now. I'm okay. Then, the next thing you know, it's not okay.' "
Would Mr. Williams have been as great an artist if he had suffered less? That's probably a pointless question – as pointless as asking what made him depressed in the first place. You might as well ask why the sky is grey.
As for those of us he left behind, here's a suggestion from Stephen Fry, the brilliant comedian (and much more) who has tried to take his own life twice. "It's hard to be a friend to someone who's depressed," he has said, "but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do."