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Depression and the Creative Process

Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of artists who have struggled with mental illness. From Vincent van Gogh’s battle with depression to Sylvia Plath’s struggles with bipolar disorder, the connection between creativity and mental health issues has been well-documented.

The Theoretical

One theory suggests that artists may be more susceptible to mental illness due to the inherent stress and pressure of their profession. The creative process can be emotionally taxing, and the need to constantly produce original and meaningful work can lead to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Furthermore, the irregular and often unpredictable nature of artistic work can lead to financial instability and a lack of job security, which can also contribute to stress and anxiety.

Another theory suggests that there may be a genetic link between creativity and mental illness. Some studies have suggested that certain traits associated with creativity, such as impulsivity and sensitivity, may also be associated with mental health disorders.

Despite these potential explanations, it is important to note that not all artists struggle with mental health issues, and not all individuals with mental health issues are artists. It is also important to avoid romanticizing mental illness in the context of creativity. Mental illness can be debilitating and should always be taken seriously and treated appropriately.

Overall, the connection between artists and mental illness remains a complex and multifaceted topic that continues to be studied and explored. While there may be some correlation between the two, it is important to approach the subject with caution and sensitivity, and to prioritize the mental health and well-being of all individuals, regardless of their profession or creative pursuits.

The Personal

As for me, I have struggled with a persistent, low-grade depression called dysthymia for most of my life, but for me it has not encouraged my creativity. Quite the opposite: as Moze Halperin says in the February 29, 2016 issue of FlavorWire, “it’s tough to be creative when you are having symptoms of mental illness.”

Tough? That’s putting it mildly. I find it enormously difficult to create in the throes of darkness. I TRY … I sit there in my studio, for hours sometimes, staring at a blank page or canvas, waiting for the muse. She seldom comes. I long for my art to be therapeutic, to channel the darkness into something prescriptive, to render something helpful, some new and inspiring piece that might benefit myself and others. The absence of this leaves the darkness intact, possibly even thicker than it was before.

In my experience, depression has forced me to look outside of myself for strength. I’ve had to accept that I can’t make it on my own. I need others, and maybe this is the redeeming quality of my mental illness. Our culture values individualism, independent strength, the “me against the world” mentality, but anyone who’s lived very long knows this to be an impossible (and inherently flawed) ideal. We are stronger together. We are designed for community, for relationship, and without it we shrivel and wilt. We weaken.

Art, for me, is therapeutic mostly in my good times. Instead of being an outlet for my pain, it is a celebration of my joy, a positive depiction of beauty. My need to create does not abate when I am low and devoid of deep inspiration, however. It simply means that I need to reach for another medium — yarn  rather than paint, reading rather than illustration — to keep my fingers busy and my mind from atrophy. In the end, my art may not be the cure for my depression, but it is certainly a salve. I’ll always need human connection on the bad days: coffee with a friend, dinner with my family, service to others — a way to focus my mind away from myself. And that is a good thing.

an illustration of the artist with her chin in her hands, outlined in blue

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