'Tortured geniuses' more likely to commit suicide, study finds

Olivia Rudgard
Vincent Van Gogh was among many artists who combined huge talent with mental anguish - Alamy

The myth of the tortured genius has endured for centuries. 

Artists as diverse as Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath have become famous for their talent as well as for their struggles with mental health problems. 

But a conclusive link has never been made between mental health issues and creativity.

For the first time reliable data has shown that the suicide rate among people working in creative roles is significantly higher than the national average. 

The first-ever study of suicide by profession from the ONS, which covered England in the years from 2011 to 2015, showed that people who work in arts-related jobs are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. 

Actors, entertainers and other creatives had a particularly high suicide rate

Among men working in culture, media and sport-related jobs, the risk is 20 per cent higher, and among women it is 69 per cent higher. 

The risk is even more pronounced among individual professions. Male artists are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, and with female artists the risk quadruples.

Rates are similarly high among actors, entertainers and presenters. 

There were 311 suicides among people working in culture, media and sport professions during the period. 

While the numbers are low, Louis Appleby, Professor of Psychiatry at Manchester University, said that they were statistically significant.

I urge all employers, large or small, public or private sector to treat mental health as seriously as physical health. Early action can stop any employees reaching a desperate stage

Duncan Selbie, CEO, Public Health England

"This is probably the best data we've ever had on this issue. 

"There are factors in that group that might put them at greater risk. The availability of alcohol and drugs are well-recognised risk factors. 

"Disruption to personal relationships is another factor. People have to spend time away from home and work antisocial hours," he said. 

A 2015 study found that creative people were 17 per cent more likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. 

But Professor Appleby said he was "quite sceptical" about the link between creativity and poor mental health. 

"Maybe some people who have some emotional volatility might be drawn into the entertainment world, but to make a definite link would be quite speculative," he said. 

Professor David Gunnell, of Bristol University, who co-authored the research with the ONS, said that more needed to be done to determine whether there was a link.

He added that the link between poverty and poor mental health was better-established.

"The priority should be to tackle the suicide rate among people in low-skilled work, which is a serious public health issue," he said.

Data | Male suicide in the UK

Ruth Sutherland, CEO of Samaritans, said: "Some of today’s findings echo what we know about increased risk in those working in low-skilled and low-paid professions. This is not right, it’s not fair, and it has to change."

Men working in the lowest-skilled occupations had a 44 per cent higher risk of suicide than the male average. 

To coincide with the data Public Health England released resources to help employers deal with suicide in the workplace. 

Duncan Selbie, chief executive, said: “I urge all employers, large or small, public or private sector to treat mental health as seriously as physical health. Early action can stop any employees reaching a desperate stage."

Between 2011 and 2015 a total of 18,998 deaths were recorded as suicide. Four in five of the cases analysed involved men. 

The Samaritans can be called free any time from any phone on 116 123.​

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