Harness creativity to help people with bipolar disorder, says expert

Harnessing their creativity may lead to better outcomes and more fulfilling lives for people with bipolar disorder, according to a leading clinical psychologist, speaking at the Australian Psychological Society College of Clinical Psychologists National Conference in Coolum tomorrow.

“Research reveals that bipolar disorder is six times more common among people who are eminently creative — that is people who are famous for their creativity across a range of fields — than in the general population,” says Associate Professor Greg Murray, Head of Psychological Sciences and Statistics at Swinburne University of Technology.

“There are a range of theories as to why people with bipolar disorder are so highly represented among the famously creative,” he says. “It may be to do with their changing moods, where down or low moods provide insights and ideas that the person can then act upon when they move into a cycle of elevated mood.  Ambition is another factor that may influence their success; these people appear to have a strong drive to achieve.”

The focus of Assoc. Professor Murray’s work comes from a strengths-based psychological approach to the treatment of bipolar disorder that has been developing over the last 10 years, which looks at the person holistically and takes into account what the person wants to achieve, rather than taking a limited focus on symptoms.

Associate Professor Murray says the creativity finding is significant in a number of ways.

“Overall creativity is valued by people with bipolar disorder. They tell us that their creative expression is a means of connecting with others and deriving satisfaction from life and they don’t want to lose that. But they also say that their creativity can be flattened by the medications that are the mainstay of their treatment,” he says.

He says this understanding may also suggest new treatment pathways and ways to engage people with bipolar disorder.

“People who are creative are often open to new ideas and new ways of doing things so if we engage people creatively and offer programs that work with this interest and strength we can provide a greater benefit.”

He says creative people are more likely to respond to action-based interventions and treatments that offer the opportunity for self-expression.

  “Positive psychology has some very exciting implications for clinicians, researchers and patients connected by an interest in bipolar disorder,” he says. “In psychological treatments, it’s critical to set goals that are positive and meaningful for the patient.    Often this means focusing on the goal of a satisfying life, rather than just a reduction of symptoms. A satisfying life for a person with bipolar disorder might include intense emotional experiences and creative expression and without those things life isn’t fulfilling, so our job is to understand those goals and to help someone achieve that. 

“Given bipolar disorder is a chronic condition, helping people to optimise their quality of life is very important. Core strengths like creativity give us a springboard for achieving this goal.”

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About bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder experienced by between one and six per cent of the population, characterised by swings in mood from highs that can tip into mania and lows that can plunge into depression.  It is generally a lifelong chronic condition.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Karen Coghlan or Judith Heywood on 0435 896 444.

About Grey Murray
Associate Professor Greg Murray is head of Psychological Sciences and Statistics at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. He is convenor of the highly respected clinical psychology programs at Swinburne University and a practising clinical psychologist specialising in bipolar disorder. Dr Murray has had a long association with the College of Clinical Psychologists, and is currently a member of an ALTC funded consortium revising the clinical psychology curriculum. Since taking out his PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2001, he has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers and chapters, won individual awards for teaching and research, and been a chief investigator on grants totalling > $1,200k. The majority of his research is collaborative and multi-disciplinary. In Australia he works with researchers investigating psychosocial treatments (live and online) for bipolar disorder. Internationally, he is a founder member of the Canadian CREST group investigating determinants of well-being in people with bipolar disorder. He collaborates with colleagues at UC Berkeley, Harvard and University of Massachusetts on studies of sleep, circadian rhythms and mood.