I am by no means an expert on depression. I am a depression sufferer, but my sort of depression is my own and no one else’s. But publishing a book on the subject has made me a little more visible, and as a result, occasionally I get asked things about it. I also read things about it or related to it semi-regularly, and as I go through life with all its ups and downs, mental health is never far from my thoughts.
So what follows is a collection of loose thoughts about depression and mental health as it relates to creativity. It is by no means comprehensive, and the things I talk about may have no bearing on your lived experience. Nevertheless, I offer them up in the hope that you might find them useful in some way—and if they are not relevant to you, perhaps they will be to someone else.
Pressing in on depression
[B]eing depressed is a lot like … wearing this weird diving bell suit made of Ziploc baggies or something. And you’re there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can’t conduct electricity. (Neko Case in an interview with NPR.)
People sometimes ask me, “How do I know if I’m depressed? How do I know it’s depression and not just having a bad day?” Generally speaking, depression is not just having a bad day; it’s low mood that persists for longer than two weeks.
It’s incredibly common, though I am still surprised at the number of people who don’t seem to know that. One stat I read says that one in four will suffer from some kind of depression over the course of their lives. This does not necessarily mean that they will be suicidal or that they will require medication; it just means that 25 per cent of us will travel through a dark period of low mood at some point. Given those stats, I think it’s good to expect it—and to even be prepared.
The thing is, there are different kinds of depression. Generally speaking (and it may be a bit reductionistic to say this), everyone falls along a spectrum between depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (e.g. bipolar disorder) and depression caused by circumstance (situational depression). Often people have a mix of both, but the mix differs from person to person.
I tend towards situational depression. This means that when my situation improves, I tend to improve too. The way I see it, situational depression seems logical and obvious: we live in a pretty messed up world (what the Bible would call a post-Fall world). So of course there are going to be things that make us feel down. For example, the death of a close friend or a family member. Family or relationship breakdown. Troubles at work. Long-term unemployment. Post-traumatic stress from massive life events (like sexual assault). Personal failure. Comparing yourself to others—particular your peers—and wondering why you’re not where they are. Trump being in power. There’s a lot out there to be depressed about, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself affected by what’s going on in the world.
That said, how do you know if you’re depressed? There are common symptoms, but they can differ from person to person. Also, some of them can seem contradictory. For example, people who suffer from depression,
- Sleep too much or not enough;
- Eat too much or not enough/suffer from loss of appetite;
- Suffer from sluggish thoughts or find themselves unable to switch off from thinking too much;
- Experience a lack of sex drive or too much sex drive;
- Complain of lack of energy or too much energy (which is what the manic stage is like for those with bipolar).
Everyone’s depression looks different. If you suffer from depression, you need to work out what yours looks like.
Creativity and depression
There’s a myth out there that you need to be depressed in order to create great work. Creators like Agatha Christie, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath and Stephen Fry suffered (or still suffer) from depression, so it must be true, or so the thinking goes. Certainly there are an awful lot of creative people out there who suffer from depression, and there definitely seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness. But sometimes I think creative people suffer from depression less because they are predisposed to it and more because of the nature of the work.
As a friend pointed out recently, creative professions are brutal. Creativity means opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable, and what you make is often subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism, which can feel very personal. Furthermore, unlike other occupations like teaching, accounting, engineering or IT, creative careers are far from stable. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of pressure to succeed—particularly if you want to make a living from what you do. But there are no guarantees, and sometimes pursuing a creative career can feel like madness.
In a sense, depression is massively detrimental to creativity, because it can prevent you from creating at all. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you’re suffering from low mood, low energy, lack of sleep and an inability to focus. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you can’t even get out of bed, let alone put pencil to paper.
Furthermore, imagine trying to do this sort of work with a swarm of judgemental and self-critical thoughts swirling around your head—for example, “This has been done before”; “No one is going to like this”; “What will they think of me?”; “This sucks. I’m a failure. I will never amount to anything. This will never amount to anything”; “This is a waste of time. What’s the point?”; and “Why can’t I be more like ____? They’ve has already done this, this and this and they’re my age!”
Many creative people may suffer from depression. But in my opinion, depression doesn’t really aid creativity.
Making good art in the shadow of the black dog
No matter your circumstances (or your brain chemistry), you can still make good art even if you suffer from depression. But you need to treat your depression first.
Everyone—depression sufferer or no—should be taking steps to manage their mental health. (Especially men: sorry, guys, but you don’t have a particularly good track record of doing this!) But unfortunately this is something we are not taught how to do by our parents, our schools or even the medical profession. Nevertheless, it’s important because mental health affects so much of life. It starts with observation—regularly stepping back from your life and assessing how things are going and how you are going. How has your mood been? What things have been affecting it? (Think specifics—for example, work stress, lack of sleep, relational difficulties, where you are on your menstrual cycle. Sometimes it helps to write yourself a list, even if you destroy it later.) Do you think you might be suffering from depression? If so, what does your depression look like? The nature of your depression will determine how you treat it.
Note I said “treat”, not “cure”. Sometimes depression cannot be cured—or at least not completely. Instead, aim for being able to manage it. The better you are at managing it, the closer you will be to getting yourself to a place where you can create.
Now, some people who have problems with their brain chemistry may have to go on medication. Antidepressants can be very helpful tools for keeping things on an even keel. But not everyone needs to take pills to manage their depression—particularly if their depression is more up the situational end of the spectrum.
Try some of the following to boost your mood:
- Talking to a counsellor;
- Engaging in exercise;
- Soaking up sunlight;
- Eating healthy food;
- Making time for rest;
- Going on holidays;
- Engaging in activities that normally make you feel happy;
- Connecting and spending time with close friends and family;
- Journalling/writing therapy;
- Practising gratitude;
- Practising generosity towards others;
- Practising self-compassion.
Related to the above, some of the unhelpful critical or judgemental thoughts common to creatives may need some serious cognitive behavioural therapy to reverse or transform them. For example,
- If you find yourself thinking, “I’m crap because I’m not doing as much as _____”, remember that your worth is not determined by your output—your word count or the number of pages you’ve managed to ink today. You are a valuable person in your own right. “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as one (or both!) of the Roosevelts is said to have said. Focus on what only you can do.
- If you find yourself thinking, “It’s been done before”, think to yourself, “That may be the case, but it hasn’t been done by me .” You are a unique individual: no one else in the world is like you. No one else has your viewpoint, your life history, your skills and your particular talent. So use what you have to do it your way.
- If you find yourself thinking, “This is a waste of time. I should just give up!”, don’t give up. Remember that nothing is a waste of time, because in creative work, everything is useful and nothing is wasted. Even if you have to scrap what you’ve just done, you’ve made progress, because you’ve figured out how not to do it. And that, therefore, means you’re closer to figuring out how it should be done. Remember that all progress is progress, no matter how small.
- If you find yourself thinking, “I haven’t done enough!”, remember to celebrate your wins. Write yourself a list if that helps. (Daniel Pink recommends doing something like this to round off each workday, even if you’re not in a creative profession.) You showed up! You wrote some words or drew a sketch! You figured out that plot point! You nailed that character nuance! Go you! You’re now a little bit closer to achieving your goal and finishing that project.
Once you’ve got a handle on your depression and are combatting the unhelpful thoughts, be sure to nurture yourself creatively. I’ve already talked about this in a previous newsletter in an article about “Creator medicine”, so I won’t go over that material again. But one thing that’s worth mentioning here is my point about talking to other creators about what they’re working on and how they like to work: sometimes just hanging around other creative people is enough to stimulate the creative juices again. (It brings to mind Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another”.) If that’s something that works for you, consider doing your creative work with someone else in order to foster accountability and encouragement. That’s something a couple of friends and I used to do—meet up once a week in a café to write. I found it helpful even on the days when I didn’t get much done.
Depression is hard. Creativity is hard. There are not shortcuts—no foolproof cures. But depression can be managed, and creative work can be done in the midst of depression. And sometimes the work itself can be something of a mood booster—particularly when you’re in that zone when it feels less like work and more like play, and you’re doing it for the love of it, instead of because you have to. Creating for yourself is, I think, is the best antidepressant of all.