How are depression and creativity linked

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I’ve always been an anxious person but for the first time in my life, I got a taste of depression. I couldn’t fall asleep, then I couldn’t get up in the morning. I couldn’t focus on my day job. I couldn’t muster any interest in my hobbies and everything I touched, I seemed to make worse. I couldn’t write. But the way I felt was so unfamiliar, I knew it wasn’t simple writer’s block. It was like my whole perception of reality had been blocked. Long story short, it took me a few months to get diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety. I started receiving therapy, got signed off work and started feeling a bit better. I’m nowhere near how I felt before this all happened but in a moment of mental clarity, I thought, did depression kill my creativity or is my creative self predisposed to mood disorders? 

Here’s what I found out. 

It’s difficult to examine 

There is a notion in Western culture that creative geniuses have long suffered of mental illnesses, going as far as to say that it makes them more creative. But that wasn’t my experience and as I delved into the scientific research on the subject, I found that such a link is difficult to prove or disprove. A full review of all available research by Christa L. Taylor makes a point that certain mood disorders, like bipolar disorder, have some proven links to creativity but depression and its possible link to creativity has been largely unaddressed. Overall, Taylor concluded that ‘the relationship between creativity and mood disorder differs according to the research approach’. So basically, it’s all up for interpretation. 

There’s anecdotal evidence galore of artists who had increased or consistent output while suffering from depression. Check out this case study of Picasso and his Blue period. While reading this, I was thinking – was Picasso getting inspired by his grief and depression or was he using art as a means of therapy, the paintings a mere by-product of his inability to access help which was unavailable at those times? 

Writing as treatment for depression 

study looked specifically into the benefits of expressive writing for people with major depressive disorder. The results were positive – the subjects showed ‘significant decreases in depression scores’; and not only that – the benefits persisted for at least four weeks. And to me it seems that what Picasso was doing was expressive art – whether writing or painting, I would argue the medium doesn’t matter. It’s the expressive part which is important – the feelings that depression brings about have to come out and when they do, relief follows. 

This is where I hit a wall with my own recovery – I was trying to do my fiction writing which had nothing to do with me expressing anything. It was me, logically, systematically, productively following a set-out plot and chasing a deadline. Depression brought to me the feeling of detachment from reality. Suddenly, it didn’t matter I wanted to finish this book. Days whizzed past. First there was guilt, there was bad writing induced by feeling like a failure. Then, there was nothing at all. 

After a while, I thought, finally, that I needed help. But that didn’t come without its own special anxiety—I know GPs are quick to dispense anti-depressants and I had heard that they can make one docile, a shadow of their previous self. So I knew that depression didn’t aid my creativity and I was afraid whatever innate writing drive I had, would be dampened by my possible treatment. 

Does medication kill creativity? 

There is some clinical evidence that anti-depressants can cause a dampening of feeling and desire in some individuals (not in everyone!). This is why I always hear so much about trying to find the correct type and dose of medication—it’s a balancing act between the benefits of treating depression and managing the side effects. 

The baseline is, however, that depression often causes the same feeling of emptiness. So the question whether medication is a way forward or not depends on your personal situation. Can you shift your writing to be more expressive, about your condition? Medication will probably work hand in hand with your healing writing practice. Do you struggle to finish a previously outlined project with strict deadlines? Then you might need to test and try until you get it right for you. 

Personally, I opted not to medicate and went into therapy. Its hard work but for me, it works. It’s the third time in my life that I have done it and I’m feeling hopeful (a sign it’s already working!). Therapy won’t be for everyone but it’s an opportunity to engage in reflection and expression without making that the focus of your creativity. 

Final thoughts 

While doing the research for this topic, I stumbled upon a great article which discusses a lot of the points I did, but also brings in the opinions of doctors and authors who deal specifically with this issue. You can read it HERE.

 

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