Depression and Creativity

Being creative is supposed to be one of the greatest things in the world. But it is my observation that there is a down side that is often there, under the surface, depression.
(Usual warning – this article contains personal experience and is no substitute for professional advice).

If you are a photographer or digital artist you probably think of yourself as creative. Creativity is a great joy, being able to pull something wonderful, beautiful or even disturbing out of stimulation that others do not see. The classic stereotypes of creative people include being ‘different’, sometimes self-centered, a bit ‘floaty or not nailed down, etc. But what can also go with creativity is a tendency to depression.

Dictionary definitions of depression define it as severe sadness and feeling dejected. It covers a broad range from being flat or sad for an extended period of time through to deep depression where people can’t get out of bed, feel no enthusiasm at all for pretty much anything and can lead to suicidal thoughts, etc.

Depression manifests itself in many ways for creative people. Beyond the severe end, which is completely debilitating to all aspects of their lives, it is my observation that creative people are prone to many ‘low level’ forms. This can be a general sadness when the person is not working on a creative process. I know my wife, a painter, is generally a much happier person when she is working on a series than when she is not. It can also work the other way around. It is inevitable that a creative person will have creative low periods, either where they are ready to change a form they have been doing for some time but have not yet worked out the new approach or perhaps they are working through technical problems. These normal problems can become quite a heavy weight for a creative person, driving them to deeper negative feelings than are warranted from a cool look at the situation. So a natural flat period can lead to thoughts of having ‘lost it’, of the work being no good and then the spiral has begun.

The spiral of depression is a real phenomenon, where a small issue becomes bigger and bigger, in the mind of the creative person. So computer problems come to dominate your thinking, stopping you from doing, or enjoying, anything else until it is resolved. Or a rejection from a gallery puts you in a bad mood for a whole week, affecting your relationships with those around you. I think you get the idea.

Now no two creative people are alike, not only in the degree to which they tend to get depressed but also in what triggers it. I, for example, am badly affected by computer issues and anything that hits on the finances, such as yet another disappointment from some organization I am working with, such as my art and photography teaching, when it impacts on the bottom line, dollars. These things don’t hit my wife so hard (well she avoids the computer entirely for art to avoid frustration :). She, on the other hand, can get very down when a technical issue, such as getting hold of the right materials or figuring out how to use them, holds her up from creating. This does not bother me, seeing it as a puzzle to solve (maybe it is a guy thing :).

How we behave when depressed also differs enormously. Some get very short fused. I tend to do several things: dive for comfort food, hide from the world (not answering emails, the phone, etc) and want to sleep a lot. It usually doesn’t stop me getting some things done, but my productivity is far less than when I am ok. Others shut up shop entirely. And of course there are those who are severely hit, feeling suicidal, or wanting to self-harm. Thankfully I do not have anyone in my circle of creative friends and loved ones who does that.

Depression in creative types is far more common in those who have not yet found their creative outlet. I see this in the creativity counseling I do. Such people have all this creative energy in them but no effective outlet. We often think of depression as a lack of energy, but in such people the problem is too much energy and no outlet, so it bubbles away, triggering negative thinking, self-sabotaging behaviors thought overload, etc.

One needs not to be scared to seek professional advice. If you have a good general practitioner you can talk to (if not, change), talk it out with them. Go see a counselor or psychologist. In extreme cases a psychiatrist can be a great idea. Medication can sometimes help. I’ve taken anti-depressants once in my life, following the death of my second wife. For about two weeks they really helped me through a tough time and then I found I worked better off them. I then substituted exercise (the natural endorphins you can get with heavy exercise are a great remedy). It is, I believe, important to get to the bottom of what is going on, especially if depression is a recurring issue in your life. Sometimes there can be a chemical imbalance, sometimes it is an accumulation of life experiences, a reaction to past stress, abuse or trauma or a whole range of other things. Even just having someone to talk to who is not emotionally involved can be a huge benefit. Sharing with friends or family can also be great.

Sometimes the most important thing with depression (and many other things) is to realize that you are not alone. Various studies that have been in the local press here in Australia mention that anywhere from one in eight up to 30% of people will experience depression at some time in their lives. Personally I think it is higher than that, it is just that some people have better skills at dealing with it internally (or denying or hiding it) and so no one else ever knows.

Beyond the knowledge that you are not alone, if you are prone to recurrent depression, you need to find ways to live with it or fix it. Professional advice is a key here, as they can offer strategies or medication. Everyone will be different and so your solution may be very different to anyone else’s. I find it useful to have several different creative projects on the go at once, so if I am blocked in one I still have something else to do that I can feel positive about. Likewise I also have several non-photographic or art projects that I can do if I need a complete break. There are also always books, magazines and journals around so that if I just want to chill out for awhile I can do so in a way that is uplifting rather than pulling me down. Also being me, I have a range of spiritual practices that I undertake, such as meditation, that greatly help me to stay positive. Sometimes I will channel what I would call negative energy that is building up into an art piece, exorcising it from me into the paper. A big assist is having a partner to keep you grounded and to pull you up when you need it.

And, of course, it can also be ok to feel blue. We are often convinced we have to be upbeat and happy all the time. Yet sometimes life can be a real shit. Bad things happen. Unfair things happen. Things go wrong. People can be horrible, selfish and uncaring. Sometimes it is, in fact, healthy to acknowledge this, feel the feelings for a while and then move on. I know I appreciate the great times better for occasionally knowing the not so great and rather than brushing it away, actually feeling it. And sometimes, great art comes out of being depressed.

Like everything to do with people, nothing is black and white. It is rich and complex and all part of being human. Know thyself, and find ways to work with yourself.

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