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LondonStudent · 1st March 2010

Science&Technology · 23

Highs and lows or shades of grey?

Newevidence fromKing’s researchers links high achievement in schoolwith bipolar disorder. Daniel James explores the facts and themyths behind it

Researchers from King's College London and theKarolina Institute in Stockholm recently published data linking high academic performance in school with the mental illness bipolar disorder.

Anecdotally, high academic intelli-

gence has often been linked with the disorder, also known as manic depres- sion. This research however is the first to offer any support to such a theory but is unlikely to give the whole story. First things first; bipolar disorder is

a very real and serious subject. It is a disabling mental illness with around

The romantic notion of genius and madness being closely

related has caught the imagination since classical times

half a million sufferers in the UK. These people live through periods of usually crippling, crushing depression coupled with periods of soaringmania. The depression that occurs in bipolar disorder is among themost severe that you can imagine. As amedical student I was lucky enough to spend six weeks of my psychiatry training in a mental health unit in East London. The pa- tients Imetweremainly thosewho had been held for treatment under one sec- tion or another of the Mental Health Act. Many of these people lived with bipolar disorder and were receiving treatment during spells of this deep, deep depression. It isworth remember- ing that bipolar disorder is one of the mental illnesses most likely to lead to suicide. The depression aspect of the illness

is not neccessarilywhat people aremost interested in. Depression isn't exactly fun, but mania, especially when it comes with a spark of talent and imag- ination certainly sounds like it might be. The romantic notion of genius and madness being closely related has caught the imagination since the time of the classical philosophers and has a lot to do with the perceived flashes of wit and inspiration that are sometimes

seen when people aremanic. Since Stephen Fry's excellent and

moving 2006 documentary The Secret Life ofTheManicDepressive, bipolar dis- order has had a somewhat higher posi- tion in the public imagination. One theme of this documentary was that people with the disease can, while liv- ing through a spell ofmania (or its less severe cousin hypomania) have the most productive and creative times of their life.The documentary focused on artistic types who found they were blessed with the ability to work ex-

Photo / illustration: RAKKA

British Journal of Psychiatry was car- ried out by looking at Swedish school results. Between the ages of 15 and 16 young Swedes take compulsory exams similar to our GCSEs. The researchers took the results for almost a million young people taking these exams and, using the admirable Swedish national hospital records looked to see who ended up being admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder be- tween the ages of 17 and 31. The head- line-grabbing resultwas that thosewith the highest grades had four times the

grades neccessarily reflect your intelli- gence or creativity at age 21? If bipolar disease does have a link with intelli- gence, thenwhy isn't the relationship a linear one?Why are the lowest achiev- ers at higher risk than those with aver- age grades? While there are doubtless famous

artists, writers and for that matter sci- entists, doctors and lord-knows-who elsewho havemanaged to functionwell with bipolar disorder it's important to remember that most highly function- ing people don't have it. Its very entic- ing to us however, this idea of the tortured genius. It appeals directly to our vanity on the one hand, the idea that those with a mental illness can be capable of greatness is a reminder that


all of us, with our sub-clinical charac- ter flaws and foibles can at least have a stab at it. On the other hand, less at- tractively,maybe it hasmore to dowith schadenfreude than aspiration; the flaws of the best and brightest validate our own.

The Swedish/KCL researchpaper:

PatientUK Info about Bipolar

Author’s blog


Mania is not always (or even often) about people

who can’t stop painting, orwriting poetry

Famous peoplewith bipolar,, l-r: Stephen Fry; VirginiaWoolf; Vincent van Gogh

tremely prolifically during manic spells.This presentation of the disorder is only one half of the story. When I've talked to people with

bipolar disorder it has become clear that mania is not always (or even very often) about people who can't stop painting, or writing poetry. Imet peo- plewho had beenwalking the streets of the East End half-dressed in the mid- dle of the night having unprotected sex with strangers and having to deal with the resulting pregnancies and infec- tions. Imet peoplewho had given away or gambled all of their money. I met people, in short who were not having the greatest time of their life; people in desperate need of help because of their inability to keep safe. Mania is not a good thing. The research from London and Sweden, published in last month's

risk of a hospital admission with bipo- lar disorder than those with average grades (a leap from 4 per 100,000 peo- ple to 16 per 100,000 people).This link was most apparent in humanities sub- jects, and less-so in the sciences. This seems to agreewith ideas about

creativity and bipolar disorder. How- ever, another important result fromthe research is that having the lowest grades (in all subjects) gave people twice the risk of a hospital admission with bipolar disorder than their school- mates with average grades. The re- search itself ismeticulously conducted and it is likely that these numbers are pretty reliable and represent a real-life situation. I would suggest a couple of questions worth thinking about: This research identified that the average age of hospital admission with bipolar dis- orderwas at around 21.Do yourGCSE Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28
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