Why are so many artists depressed? : The science and art of mental health
04 December 2018
We’re all familiar with the notion: Artists suffer great periods of depression and unusual behaviours, and then either as a result of and/or endured for the purpose of, expressing this in their artwork. Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francisco Goya, the malady is well documented across generations and nationalities of artists.
Since Plato it has been argued that ‘madness’ is twinned with creative genius, that the agonies we now understand as depression and the turbulence we now recognise as mania seem part of a Faustian bargain with inspiration.
More recently, science has provided proof the ‘mad genius’ is not necessarily a myth. Professor Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine (and also a sufferer herself of bio-polar disorder) authored a landmark paper examining the link between artists and mental illness. Studies of artists and writers collated in the paper, originally published in Scientific American 1995, confirmed that artists and writers are up to 20 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (also called manic depressive illness) and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression (1). Both these conditions are strongly associated with suicide and, most disturbingly, artists are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
Why is depression so prevalent among artists? How does a genetic flaw turn into a creative bonus? And how does an artist access the benefits of that creativity without suffering the potentially fatal harm of a major mood disorder, or even the lesser but still painful bouts of minor depression?
Jamison observes that manic-depressives in their high or manic state think faster and associate more freely. When manic, people need less sleep, have unusual energy and focus and an inflated self-belief, all of which may allow the production of original work. As such, she postulates that depression may simply be the flip side of the creative manic state, the price artists pay for their bouts of productive work.
Terence Ketter, professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at Stanford University, has studied creativity in both bipolar and depression sufferers. He identifies personality factors and cognitive styles common to bipolar and creatives: changeable feelings, high intuition, curiosity and open-mindedness which. Similarly, sensitivity and rumination are common to both artists and depressives. (2).
Supporting genetic evidence has since been published. In 2015 Kári Stefánsson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company, published in Nature Neuroscience. The paper suggested that results from their polygenic study implied creative people are 25% more likely to carry genes that raise risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (3).
However, Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University has an interesting counter argument: “The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data,” he said. “Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.(4)”
Looking beyond the biology, it’s often been commented that the pressures of being an artist, with the precariousness of funding, the demands of unrealistic deadlines and the need to be seen to succeed and deliver consistently. This environment could lend itself to stress and creates a fostering ground for depression to form.
Here I’d like to highlight two particularly interesting modern day case studies:
Hospital rooms (5)
Hospital Rooms is a charity whose mission is to bring world class art to mental health hospitals. The group commissions world class artists to work with patients and staff to radically transform clinical environments in mental health hospitals to provide joy and dignity and to stimulate and heal. Their success and demands suggests that whether genetic or societal/environmental, people with mental health disorders often find comfort in artwork.
Kim Noble (6)
Kim Noble is a mother, artist and author who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID is a creative way to cope with unbearable pain. The main personality splits into several parts each having an amnesic barrier between them. In and out of hospital from the age of 14, with no formal art training, Kim and her alters became interested in painting in 2004 after spending a short time with an art therapist. The resulting 13 artists each have their own distinctive style, colour and themes that they work with. Many are unaware they share a body with other artists. Combined, they have had over 60 exhibitions, nationally and internationally.
Regardless of its origin, (which is likely to be a combination of predisposing genetics, environmental factors, and personality traits), many artists harness and channel their mental health struggles into their artwork to great effect. Depression and its relations are generally terrible illnesses to experience. If you are experiencing mental health issues yourself, please remember you are not alone. Reach out to someone you trust or a support group. (Such as Samaritans or Mind). Try to embrace some self-compassion and your illness as a source of inspiration. It may help you to process your recovery and perhaps even create your best life work.