History is filled with wonderfully creative individuals who came to tragic ends. It’s so common to hear of artists struggling with alcohol, drugs or mental illness the link between the two seems almost undeniable. But does creativity really correlate with addiction or mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder? Is there a scientific connection?

The answer is both yes and no.

Vincent Van Gogh and Mental Illness

Some famous artists were thought to be more brilliant because of their use of substances like absinthe or psychedelics, while the public witnessed the same drugs dull the genius of others. Others question whether a painter like Vincent van Gogh would have been able to generate the same work if his suspected mental illness had been diagnosed and treated. Would his gift have shriveled as his health improved, or would treatment have allowed him to reach new heights of creativity and productivity?

Many people believe that pursuing treatment for an addiction or mental health issue will make you less creative — but it just isn’t true. Sobriety or balanced mental health does not change your genetics, and creativity is a genetic trait. Those in recovery usually find their mind is clearer, making them better able to respond to and follow through on their natural creative impulses. In contrast, long-term substance use can permanently damage creativity — extended drug use can affect the brain in ways that may not be completely recoverable, even after years of sobriety.

There may not be a direct link between substance abuse or mental illness and creativity, but science hints at a link between addiction and traits that are a prerequisite for creativity.

Genetics and Addiction

Addiction often runs in families, but studies have shown that only 40-60 percent of a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined.1 A family history is no guarantee that anyone will have a problem later on, and there is no single addiction gene. There are several genes involved in genetic addiction risk, and experts still haven’t identified all of them.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps people remember the pleasure of an experience so they repeat it over and over again. Drugs often artificially boost dopamine levels in the brain so that the brain makes less naturally, which causes people to use drugs more frequently to feel the same effects. A low-level dopamine system can make an individual more likely to misuse substances and to engage in high risk, compulsive behavior. While these aren’t necessarily creative behaviors, they are starting points that can lead to creativity.

These behaviors, although associated with addiction, can also be helpful in success. Risk-taking and novelty-seeking are common traits among inventors, business leaders and other successful individuals who have made great contributions to our world. However, you must make sure those innate behaviors do not lead to substance abuse.

Even if you have a predisposition to addiction, you can choose not to use. Surrounding yourself with accountability and a sober community can help you stay creative and clean. If you do find yourself struggling with addiction or mental health issues, treatment is readily available.

Mental Health and Addiction Help

Manny found his recovery in art and creativity, and you can too.

If you or someone you love needs treatment for alcohol or drug abuse and a co-occurring mental health disorder, call Skywood Recovery today. We are here at our toll-free helpline to take your call 24 hours a day and can answer any questions you have about treatment, financing or insurance. We want to help you find freedom from addiction. Please call today.


1Drug Abuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Addiction, July 2014.