I am a Masters student in Philosophy of Health and Happiness at the University of Birmingham. I also hold a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and have over 5 years experience in clinical practice, working mainly with psychosis, depression, eating disorders and manic - depressive illness in conjunction with addictions (so-called dual diagnosis). In my recent work I examined possible beneficial traits of manic-depressive illness (Bipolar Disorder).
At first glance it may sound surprising to place ‘bipolar’ and ‘positive’ in the same sentence. However, a thorough study and analyses conducted by some psychiatrists (Galvez, Thommi, Ghaemi, 2011, Ghaemi 2012a, Ghaemi, 2012b) discovered that having the illness might enhance particular characteristics that are seen as beneficial. The authors of one of the studies reviewed 81 examples that mentioned positive psychological qualities in individuals diagnosed with manic depressive illness and found a strong association with the following five qualities: realism, empathy, spirituality, resilience and creativity.
From an epistemic point of view, two of the mentioned traits are worth special consideration, realism and creativity.
Studies in clinical psychology repeatedly evidence this extraordinary phenomenon: depressed people perceive their lives and events in a more realistic (understood as closer to truth) way than non-depressed individuals. When would a ‘depressive’ realistic perception be beneficial? Firstly, this particular discovery might change the way the close environment sees depressive individuals. Often perceived as ‘exaggerating’ their worries, people suffering from this illness may be actually closer to truth than others. Does it benefit them in any way? Not at first glance, in terms of their immediate emotional improvement. However, as they see things more realistically, they might be able to make a more accurate decision and take a more precise course of action in times of crisis or other general difficulties.
Enhanced creativity has been studied thoroughly in relation to manic depressive illness, especially to manic spectrum episodes. It very much seems to be an outcome of the individual being able to make quick mental associations, thinking fast and ‘outside of box’, and her mood being lifted above average, motivating her actions with an extraordinary strength. However, in many cases, where mood control fails, those emotional ‘highs’ have an adverse effect on achievement, leading to scattered thinking, grandiose delusions and destructive behaviours of mania.
Can we then say, with clear certainty that, enhanced by BD, creativity is indeed a ‘positive’ attribute? Perhaps it can be, if we distinguish between mild symptoms that lead to productivity and severe symptoms that lead to dysfunction. Magnificent examples of art, created in manic spectrum episodes, certainly benefit the recipients and the world’s cultural heritage. Perhaps, by offering their authors positive feelings of contributing to the world’s good, they also provide a vital psychological profit of personal importance.