There is a slew of research and speculation regarding the connection between high intellect and mental illness. The annals of history are chalked full of evidence of very gifted people that were tortured by their psychological and mental demons. They stand, though, as beacons of hope and as role models for people that suffer from similar afflictions. They prove that even people with mountainous obstacles can change the course of humanity.
1. Vincent van Gogh
I put van Gogh on the top of my list not because he is the most evident choice but because I feel his mental illness has been overemphasized in lieu of his contribution to the history of art. As an artist, van Gogh introduced a new way of creating and despite his mental illness had created works that not only created and ushered in an entirely new art movement, but are also still venerated today.
2. John Nash
You might not be familiar with the mathematic genius, 1994 Economics Nobel Prize winner and developer of the Nash equilibrium theory, John Nash. I’m pretty sure that you are familiar with the movie A Beautiful Mind, though, which was based on his life. Although he spent a large part of his life being institutionalized and treated for his paranoid schizophrenia, he managed to recover and actually went back to teaching mathematics at Princeton.
3. Leo Tolstoy
Although a propensity for the dark and grim is quite evident in the classic Russian author’s writings, mental illness afflicts Tolstoy until much later in his life. At some point after hitting his middle age, he experienced a rapidly decaying value for the things in his life. He lost his interested in writing, questioned his belief system, and even pondered suicide. He eventually, with the help of spiritualism, escaped from his demons.
4. Ludwig van Beethoven
The musical genius behind seminal classical compositions is speculated to have suffered from bipolar disorder. I would like to clarify at this point that I say ‘speculated’ because often during these periods’ mentally ill individuals would die undiagnosed, due to lack of knowledge regarding mental health. From personal correspondence and depiction by others of personality traits, scientists have strong evidence that indeed people such as Beethoven and other historical figures suffered from mental health issues. He would have explosive periods of creativity and energy followed by periods of inactivity and darkness. It is also said that Beethoven would self-medicate with opiates and alcoholic drinks.
5. Edgar Allan Poe
Poe was deeply interested in abnormal psychology, evident by many of his protagonists’ mental states and disorders. He would self-medicate with heavy drinking and he once expressed having suicidal thoughts.
6. Ernest Hemingway
The Nobel Prize-winning author and timeless standard for machismo, Hemingway suffered not only from depression but also from alcoholism. Unfortunately, the famous author probably had a genetic preposition for depression as he took his own life, like his father, brother, sister and granddaughter.
7. Tennessee Williams
Williams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who penned such influential pieces as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. He also had a family history with mental illness, and after the loss of his longtime lover, he found comfort in drugs and alcohol. The addiction plagued him until the end of his life.
8. Isaac Newton
Newton was such a significant physicist that he actually has a measure of energy named after him. He invented calculus, observed the effects of gravity, and actually established the laws of motion. Due to the fact that Newton displayed multiple behaviors that indicated mental illness, historians speculated he could have been afflicted by autism, bipolar disorder, and psychotic tendencies. Thankfully, he is remembered more for his contribution to science than his afflictions.
9. Virginia Woolf
I am fully aware that my list is very male-heavy, and I apologize to my female readers. There are a few reasons for this, though. First, history underrepresents female geniuses; and second, especially in history, mental illness was not diagnosed and treated. Virginia Woolf is a 20 century writer who redefined literature with novels such as To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. She suffered from fluctuating moods and depression. Modern psychologists speculate that she suffered from bipolar disorder since she was 13 years old.
10. Marie Curie
This Polish scientist was so dedicated to her research that it ended up killing her. She was the only scientist in history to receive two Nobel Prizes, and a pioneer in the field of radioactive elements. Her one-mindedness in regards to her research make scientists speculate that she suffered from Asperger syndrome.
This entire list is composed of people that are remembered for their contribution to science, art and humanity, although mental illness can be debilitating it is not prohibitive. Thank you for reading, and if you would like to add other geniuses or significant individuals with a mental illness, please let us know in comment section below.