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Simon Kyaga; “There is a thin line between genius and madness”

The mentally ill are regular people who may have unusually creative abilities. That is the conclusion Simon Kyaga came to when he realised how important it is to meet patients with an open and unprejudiced mind.

“It was with some trepidation that I alone went to see the manic patient at the psychiatric emergency department one evening seven years ago. As a newly qualified physician in training to specialise in psychiatry, I was well aware that these patients could be both agitated and violent.

But the man diagnosed with bipolar disorder was closer to 80 years old and quite short in stature, had curly white hair, a beret and cardigan. He did not look particularly dangerous even though he was wound up. He said that it really was unnecessary for him to be there because he was quite busy spending time with the Swedish artistic and intellectual elite and he was much sought after by young women.

The combination of the man's manic condition and his stories, which I interpreted as grandiose delusions, led me to suggest that he be admitted overnight, to which he agreed. In the morning when I was finishing my nightshift, a nurse told me that his wife was related to the patient, who was a highly esteemed photographer who socialised with the artistic and intellectual elite and was known for his many love affairs. I became nervous. Had I admitted someone who was not ill? But the patient was happy that he had been able to sleep for the first time in a long time and he said he had not been taking his lithium medication regularly.

There is a thin line between genius and madness and this particular situation reflects the connection we have found between creativity and mental illness, something I am curious about and that I have taken a doctor's degree in. I have met many patients, several of which had a great creative ability and it can be difficult to assess whether the patients' experiences are a part of a manic episode or if they are true experiences.

Every third Swedish person has at some point suffered mental illness and it is connected to much prejudice, stigma and alienation, but the attitude towards these regular people with mental ill-health is about to change. And now we know that they can also have abilities worthy of envy.”

Name: Simon Kyaga

Title: Researcher at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Senior consultant in psychiatry.

Currently: Researching the connection between ADHD and inventiveness in collaboration with Stockholm School of Economics.

As told to: Helena Mayer, first published in the magazine Medical Science, no 3, 2015.