Robert Burns may have had bipolar, academics claim

Robert Burns may have suffered from bipolar disorder, according to researchers at Glasgow University.

Academics believe that Burns' intense bursts of creativity, depression and troubled personal life may have been caused by bipolar disorder. PIC: Contributed.

More than 800 letters and journals have been used to analyse the mental state of Scotland’s national bard.

The project also looked beyond Burns’ correspondence to his relationships and day-to-day life in a bid to establish if he had a psychiatric disorder.

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The Glasgow academics carrying out the four year project, which started in 2015, say they have some evidence to suggest that Burns may have suffered from bipolar disorder, with the Bard’s moods cycling between depression and hypomania.

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This might explain the writer’s periods of intense creativity, temperamental personality and unstable love life, they claim.

The research looked at blocks of letters across four separate time frames over nine years from 1786 to 1795, testing the use of the poet’s letters as a source of evidence relating to his mental health.

The findings – Mood disorder in the personal correspondence of Robert Burns: Testing a novel inter-disciplinary approach - are published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Moira Hansen, the principal researcher on the project, said: “Blue devilism was the term Burns used to describe periods of depression which he suffered, periods which affected his life and his work – not something you would automatically expect of someone with a worldwide reputation for knowing how to enjoy himself – and something that our project is properly studying for the first time.

“During his lifetime and since his death, Burns has often been viewed as a tortured poetic genius which helped to explain his reputation as a lover of life, women and drink. But it is only in the last two decades that it has been mooted he may have suffered from a mood disorder.”

“This project is using modern day methods to track and categorise the bard’s moods and work patterns.”

Ms Hansen said the poet’s letters were used in place of the face-to-face interviews a psychiatrist would normally have.

She added: “We have pinpointed evidence which showed bouts of increased energy and hyperactivity, and periods of depression and a withdrawal from day-to-day life.

“Further work to take account of the conventions of letter writing in the 18th century, who Burns was addressing his letters to and the different activities he was involved in at the various stages of his life is still being carried out. But we now believe Burns may have had what we would recognised today as bipolar disorder.”

Further work will be done to create a “mood map” of Burns’ life to chart how his highs and lows linked to events in his private and public life, and how his state of mind impacted on his writing.

The first block of letters covered a three-month period centred on December 1793, specifically chosen as it was a known period of melancholia or depression identified by Burns in his writing.

At this time Burns’s letters show him feeling “altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy…my soul flouncing & fluttering”.

This sample acted as a base to show symptoms of lowered mood, mild depression and melancholia with two of the letters meeting the criteria for clinical depression.

There were also gaps, over two weeks between the 3-15 December 1793, where the poet appeared to have written no letters which could indicate some social withdrawal, researchers claim.

The other three blocks of letters acted as further pilot tests of the methodology – with an individual not connected to the study randomly selecting three different starting points for each of the samples. This blind sample had a total of 104 letters assessed.

The authors of the report are Moira Hansen, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith PhD student based at the University’s College of Arts; Professor Daniel Smith, Professor of Psychiatry at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, and Professor Gerard Carruthers, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Professor Daniel Smith, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, said: “Today there is greater awareness of the importance of mental health issues and we hope our project can be part of this debate. Carefully assessing the mood and behaviour of one of Scotland’s iconic figures, using both medical and literary expertise, is a new approach that helps to paint a picture of his mental health and how it affected both his life and writing.

“Obviously it hasn’t been an easy task given our subject has been dead for more than 200 years. We hope that the possibility that Scotland’s national bard, a global icon, may have had bipolar disorder will contribute to discussions on the links between mental illness and creativity. This work might also help to destigmatise psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression.”

Professor Gerard Carruthers, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, said: “The fact that Scotland’s national bard may have had bipolar disorder is part of the telling and understanding of all aspects of the bard’s story to reveal a more accurate picture of the real Robert Burns.”

The project, called Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease: Physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns, officially started in October 2015 and is due to be completed in 2019.