Home Artist's Lounge Is there a Link between Creativity and Depression?

Is there a Link between Creativity and Depression?

by Beatrice Madonna

Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Edward Munch, Jackson Pollock… There are two things that connect these people. First, they were all famed artists – musicians, painters, writers… Second, they all suffered from some form of depression. And that is an eternal question for science – is there a link between creativity and depression?

Are all people who suffer from some kind of depression more creative than those who are not? Or are highly creative people more prone to developing depressive disorders? We dove deep into the studies to come up with the answer. So if you ever wondered the same question, read on.

The notion that creativity and depression are in some way interconnected is not a modern construct.

We are far from the first to ask the question – Is there a link between creativity and depression?

Believe it or not, these questions were asked amongst the ancient philosophers as well. Even Aristotle wondered why all brilliant minds of arts are at the same time melancholic (the term melancholy was used to describe depressive states until fairly recently). This shows that the notion that creativity and depression are in some way interconnected is not a modern construct. It is a question of nature and not easily understandable or explicable.

Famed artists who suffered from depression

Countless influential poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Lord Byron and William Blake, actually wrote about the extreme mood swings they had to endure. Many modern poets were even hospitalized due to the severity of their depressive episodes.

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Looking at the Munch´s ˝The Scream˝, one of the most iconic masterpieces of painting, it is clear to anyone that before them is a scene of intense psychological distress. Thanks to excerpts from Munch´s diary, we know that he depicted a real-life event. Even though he suffered his whole life from a psychological illness, he recognized and accepted it as a source of his genius. Convinced that he could not create art without it, he did not want to resolve it.

Van Gogh also walked the thin line between madness and genius. Commercially unsuccessful during his life, even though extremely prolific, Gogh´s works of art today reach more than $60 million. Reading the correspondence between him and his brother Theo, it is evident that Vincent was aware of his disturbing psychological state. But was unable to understand and explain it, let alone embrace it as part of his ingenuity, as Munch did.

If he was aware of what was happening to him and how that affected his art, would he be able to deal with it better?

Dealing with mental illness is no longer taboo

Thanks to wider psychological education, the topic of depression became less taboo. Many famous people and prominent figures are speaking out about mental illness, sharing their stories and experiences.

Some of the most successful artists in the world at the moment – Adele, Lady Gaga, Kristen Bell, Zayne Malik, Cara Delavingne and many, many more, openly talked about the difficulties they have dealing with depression, anxiety or some form of mental disorder. Thanks to their stories, mental illnesses are becoming less and less taboo and people are starting conversations around those topics. Many of these artists have accepted the disease as a part of their lives, and some stated that they have created their best works when in bouts of depression. For many, these episodes empowered them to become stronger and create outstanding work!

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What science has to say about the link between creativity and depression?

It was only in the past two decades that science made an effort to conduct systematic studies on this topic. One of the first was completed in 1970 by Nancy C. Andreasen who examined 30 people in the field of creative writing and has noticed a high prevalence of mood disorders amongst them. In all of the succeeding studies, percentages of participants (writers, visual artists, poets, painters, musicians, etc.) who experienced some kind of mood disorder were always pretty high.

Even though there have been many scientific efforts to provide an answer to the above question, none have been conclusive. Some believe that those suffering from depression and other mental illnesses turn to art and creative line of work as some sort of therapy. Others claim that it is depression that provides inspiration and acts as a subject for many artists´ works. Then there are those who say that artists have to experience the ultimate depths of emotional pain to produce works of the highest quality. Most probably, it´s everything combined.

  • One thing is for certain – creative professionals are more often treated for mental illness than the rest of the population, according to the researchers at the Karolinska Institutet (Sweden). Their study tracked more than 1.2 million Swedish patients, along with their families, and has confirmed what they have already suspected. Bipolar depression was more present amongst artistic and scientific professions (authors, dancers, photographers, etc.)
  • Similar results were obtained by Christa Taylor from Albany State University who conducted a similar study involving millions of participants. They noticed a clear connection between having creative tendencies and mood disorders, most commonly bipolar depression. A study led by Ruth L. Richards at Harvard University corroborated this conclusion, showing enhanced creativity amongst manic-depressive patients when compared with healthy individuals.

Is it possible that such troublesome mental illnesses could enhance creativity and be the source of genius?

  • Taylor further investigated whether those individuals with clinically diagnosed mental illnesses are more creative compared to healthy individuals. It turned out that this is not the case. What do these findings mean in reality? They suggest that indeed creative people are more prone to suffering from mental illnesses. But it is not the illness itself that causes this characteristic.

What are the statistics about depression?

Depression affects twice more women than men and usually appears later in life. While bipolar disorders plague women and men equally, often before the age of 20. On one hand, bipolar disorder is characterized by constant mood changes. You go from feeling depressed to euphoric and hyperactive, from feeling extremely happy to extremely sad. There are also milder forms, without such debilitating changes. As well as more advanced cases, which often result in hospitalization. On the other hand, major depression is manifested with longer periods of complete dysfunction.

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In which way do these major mood disorders actually affect the work of artists?

It seems that having a low mood can benefit creativity, allowing for deeper thoughts and new perspectives. This can explain so many instances where depressive peaks have been followed by spikes in creativity. A common feature of manic states is that they induce creative thinking, which is stated under its diagnostic criteria, alongside a sharper line of thoughts and increased productivity.

Furthermore, this altered cognitive state of mania seems to contribute to increased quantity, as well as quality, of thoughts. Even though it is not clear what exactly is really causing this change in mental processing, it is evident that it enhances the production of unique associations and ideas.

  • One possible answer comes from a neurobiologist at the University of California-Irvine, James Fallon. He claims that the spikes in creativity, with patients suffering from bipolar disorders, appear when they are surfacing from deep depression. This is because brain activity shifts when the mood improves. The lower part of the frontal lobe, a brain region, experiences a decrease in activity while the opposite happens in the higher part. The same happens when people are experiencing periods of intense creativity.
  • At the same time, a study led at Tuft University showed that people suffering from depression process their emotions much more difficult than those who are not dealing with mental health issues. This is due to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain which regulates emotional outputs, being hyperactive. So these individuals could find that the only way they could express these emotions is through art.

Can creativity heal depression?

Even though it is still unclear whether it´s that higher predisposition towards creativity entails at the same time higher predisposition towards depression, or if those more prone to depressive disorders tend to be more creative. But it seems that using creativity in an efficient way can prove to be beneficial.

Art therapy is recognized as an additional therapeutic treatment and is used for treating depression for more than 50 years now. Art therapy can improve mental health in general, participating in creative activities can decrease stress and anxiety, and balance out mood oscillations. From last year, in Canada, doctors are even prescribing museum visits to combat physical and mental ailments. They rely on scientifically-proven benefits of art on health. say that the benefits are similar to those patients can get from physical activity, prompting the secretion of a similar level of feel-good hormones, and can help with everything from chronic pain to depression, stress and anxiety.

Art is helping people express themselves at a very deep level and when seeing that there exist other options, give hope that things can change.

Mardie Rossie (EdD, LMHC)

Art 3 - Is there a Link between Creativity and Depression?

Furthermore, when we involve in creative processes, a ˝happiness˝ hormone dopamine is being released. When we finish a project, especially an enjoyable and meaningful one, a feeling of psychological satisfaction emerges called ˝effort-driven rewards˝, which reinforces brain circuits. This indicates that activities such as dancing, making music, painting, sculpting, photography, any which involve using our senses to create something on our own, stimulates the release of brain chemicals effective in battling depression.

Embark on the journey of artistic discovery!

Through creative processes we are encouraged to dig deeper into our consciousness, get to know ourselves better, and deal with our emotions and fears, using art as an outlet to express them in a healthy way. By doing this, we heal our soul and pave the way to overcoming depression, besides just using medication and regular forms of therapy. This is the winning combination for diminishing the feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and many others which accompany depressive disorders.

Art will bring you to a different level

You don´t need to be a highly creative person to embark on the journey of artistic self-discovery and emotional healing. Choose the medium in which you feel most comfortable and either alone or with the guidance of a licensed therapist, use the healing power of Art therapy to strengthen your mental health and reach an emotional balance.

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Encourage your healing by taking an art class

Apart from learning a new skill and having a creative outlet, by taking a group class, you will also be part of the community. Being part of a community can have a positive effect on mental health and emotional wellbeing. Community involvement provides a sense of belonging and social connectedness and it also offers extra meaning and purpose to everyday life. Taking a painting, dance, acting, makeup class – any kind of art class will also develop your skills faster and you will feel good about your progress. And as soon as you know – you will get hooked on it, and your mind will be occupied with something you LOVE doing. And that is the most powerful tool for a happier and calmer mind.

Have a blueprint for dealing with depression

You need to have an action plan. Depression can be seductive and when depressed – one tends to procrastinate dealing with the problem. Involve yourself with as many activities as you know that they will benefit your health. Besides going to psychotherapy, there are a lot of tools you can use to ask yourself the right questions and give yourself the answers you need to cope better with your struggles. There are a lot of brilliant books on the topic that will open up your mind to new ways of thinking and therefore, new ways of living.

Remember that you are not alone, and many people who had maybe the same form of depression just like you came with wonderful solutions to the problem and made a blueprint of how they dealt with it. Books like The Artists Way, The Perfect You, and The Creativity Cure provide great insight and practical mind exercises to get you out of the rut.

Take care of yourself by expressing yourself

Whether you are suffering from some form of depression and anxiety, or not at all – you owe to yourself to express your feelings. Don’t suppress what and how you are feeling, as it can build up and lead to negative outcomes. Express yourself through any medium that you find attractive and put yourself and your own health in the first place of your priorities. The greatest gift you can give to yourself, others and the world – is healthy you!

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