The 18th-century Scottish bard produced huge quantities of literary works, including Auld Lang Syne and A Red, Red, Rose, in bursts of creativity interspersed with periods of depression and heavy drinking.
According to scientific and literary experts at Glasgow University his creative spikes, along with his volatile love life, point to the possibility that he suffered from the condition that affects up to three million people in Britain.
Dr Daniel Smith, from the university’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, said: “Burns had a complicated and some might say tempestuous personal history, with bouts of melancholic depression, heavy lifelong alcohol consumption and considerable instability in relationships, including a series of extramarital affairs.
“Although it is difficult to prove conclusively, it is possible that his life history and his prodigious literary outputs may have been influenced by a recurrent disorder of mood such as bipolar disorder.”
People with bipolar disorder (previously called manic depression) experience extreme mood swings – from depressive feelings of sadness, difficulty sleeping and suicidal thoughts to manic episodes which include feelings of euphoria, speaking very quickly, racing thoughts, lack of concentration and reduced appetite for food and sleep.
A spokesman for the mental illness charity Rethink said that if Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his ear beforetaking his own life, was alive today, it is likely he would have been diagnosed with some sort of mental health condition.
A study commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland suggested Burns’ handwriting showed he may have had bipolar disorder.
More recently, a study in Sweden showed that people with bipolar disorder, as well as their healthy siblings and parents, were more likely to work in creative industries such as journalism, painting and writing.
Dr Smith, a medical adviser to Bipolar Scotland, explained the link between the condition and creativity: “During hyper-mania, people often have many, many thoughts – they are very eloquent, they speak very quickly, their thoughts are rapid and they have bursts of energy.
“This can result in bursts of creativity. It can be pathological where it affects people’s lives but it can also lead to productivity. Among poets, bipolar disorder is not that rare an occurrence. Bipolar is more common among poets than the general population.”
A one-day conference at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow yesterday called for research into the links between mental health conditions and creativity.
Recognising that such a prominent and successful figures as Burns may have had bipolar disorder may help tackle the stigma surrounding mental health illnesses, sufferers believe.
Dr Smith added: “Among the community of people who have suffered from bipolar disorder, there’s a desire for people to acknowledge the positive aspects of the condition.
“Bipolar is relatively common – many people who have it are productive – and they hope it will tackle the stigma of the condition. If we get people to get diagnosis sooner rather than later, you can tackle the stigma and get the right treatment.”
The lecture, “Robert Burns and Medicine: Exploring links between physical illness, mental disorder and creativity”, is the first time academics from the medical and literary worlds have come together to address the long-running question of Burns’ mental health.