Many people experience depression, including prominent artists. Some of them, like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Robin Williams and so many others, have died by suicide.
One of the myths of creativity is that you need to be depressed to be creatively vital and successful. You don’t.
But many creative people may be particularly susceptible to mood disorders.
Musician Shawn Colvin talked on an episode of the Oprah show (Depressed, Mentally Ill and Famous, in 2004) about being depressed before she got pregnant, but experiencing even more challenges with postpartum depression. She said:
“Initially it was really bad. Part of the way I’ve dealt with my depressions in the past is I’ve had the ability, if necessary, to just check out.
“There have been times when I’ve not shown up at work … and I knew it was going to be a big deal for me to commit to this baby, to have a baby, but I thought it was the best challenge I could offer to myself and I really could rise to it.
“And I feel I have. But when that baby comes home, there’s this idea that, you know, you’re bonded right away.
“It wasn’t true for me. This was a new person. I didn’t know her. She didn’t know me. And you’re taking it all. And that’s supposed to happen and I knew it. …
“But, man, the world went away. It was depression. Probably the best thing about it was that I did not allow myself to leave the situation.”
In a press release, Colvin said, “Since seeking help and getting appropriate treatment for my depression, I have felt more engaged with and closer to family and friends, and have been able to fully capture my creativity.”
[Photo at top from her Facebook page.]
Another example: this image is from a video: Alanis Morissette on Battling Postpartum Depression.
The caption (on Oprah.com) notes Alanis Morissette “who has battled depression and anxiety throughout her life — began suffering from postpartum depression.”
“So I just felt like I woke up underwater every day and that tar was being poured all over me, and I just didn’t want to be alive,” Alanis says. “I didn’t want to be here.”
Eric Maisel, PhD, author of The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, notes that meaning aspects of our lives and work are of deep importance in dealing with dark moods – for creative people especially.
He says, “The places where we make large investments of meaning, for instance in our performances, paintings, or books, are places of great anxiety, because there is more than our ego on the line, there is our very sense of the meaningfulness of our life.”
From our interview Investing meaning in our art.
One of the ways we need to support ourselves is to deal with mental health challenges like depression that can distort our inner life and impede access to our creative thinking and energy.
There are, of course, many kinds and degrees of depression. There are ‘the blues’ – the ordinary sort of reaction to a distressing event such as not getting a film role you wanted, or a book deal, or leaving a relationship.
You may feel that kind of non-clinical depression intensely – especially if you are a highly sensitive person – but you will likely get over it with time, and new challenges, like another audition, a new publisher, will help.
But many creative people experience more serious levels of depression.
Andrew Solomon earned international accolades for his work as a novelist, journalist and historian. At 31 he descended into a major depression. He was helped by a combination of family support, medications and talk therapy.
He has described his experience in multiple essays, such as:
“I always say that the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and that depression has to do with finding all of life totally overwhelming.
“It’s a poverty of the English language that we only have that one word, depression, that’s used to describe how a little kid feels when it rains on the day of his baseball game, and it’s also used to describe why people spend their lives in mental hospitals and end up killing themselves.
“But clinical depression really has to do with the feeling that you can’t do anything, that everything is unbelievably difficult, that life is completely terrifying, and a feeling of this free-floating despair, which is overpowering and horrifying.”
From his article The experience of darkness and hope.
That is a good indication of how much depression can interfere with our creative expression – not to mention quality of life.
In addition to medications and formal psychotherapy, there are many self-help approaches to managing depression, including books and supplements such as hypericum, or St. John’s Wort, which I used in the past, for a number of years, and found beneficial.
Even a simple strategy can help. Eric Maisel suggests, “It isn’t of life-and-death importance that the house be clean or that you remember everybody’s birthday, but it is vital that the chaos of ideas that start to flood your brain when you open up to your own creativity have a place to be sorted and saved.
“Many of us feel depressed, defeated, and incapable of creating for just this reason, that the swirl of ideas inside our head keeps swirling with no place to go. But something as simple as organization can turn that around. Investing in large erasable bulletin boards is an excellent starting point.” [From his title The Creativity Book.]
Another of his books: Rethinking Depression.
Also see quotes by Maisel, other psychologists and creative people, on my related site: Depression and Creativity
and Facebook page: Depression, Anxiety and Creativity.
Randy Paterson is a psychologist, Director of Changeways Clinic, a private mental health center, and writes a blog called PsychologySalon.
This image is from one of his online courses:
What Causes Clinical Depression?
“Learn About the Many Risk Factors for Common Mood Problems – And Why “Biochemical Imbalance” Isn’t One of Them”
“We range from biological and historical causes, through lifestyle and situational factors, to the often-neglected area of meaning. Along the way we look at the literature concerning diet, cognitive vulnerabilities, emotional tolerance, social isolation, exercise, and more.”
Dr. Paterson also teaches the online course
[The image is from the intro video – follow the link to see it.]
“Depression is one of the most difficult experiences in life, yet it is one of the most common of psychological complaints. Regardless of what causes it for a particular person (and there are usually multiple risk factors involved), depression will affect all aspects of a person’s experience: their emotional state, their behavior, their thoughts, and their physical functioning.
“Unfortunately, changes in each of these areas tend to magnify changes in the others, creating a spiral of symptoms.
“Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) works to disrupt these spirals by focusing on elements within the person’s control – in particular, the behavior and thoughts (not too surprisingly, given the name!). This course presents an understanding of depression, then advocates an emphasis on action to start the cycle moving in the upward direction. …
“Remember, though: Watching videos doesn’t help anyone very much. Most of the course recommendations involve getting away from the computer and getting involved in outside life. You’ll get a 100-page guidebook to help you in your efforts.”
If you suffer from even “slight” depression, learn more about it and do something so it doesn’t interfere with your life and vitality.