Throughout history, there have been countless examples of artists, writers, and musicians struggling with periods of anguished depression and other severe mental health issues. As a result, a cultural myth has sprung up that equates creative genius with madness. Though this cultural myth has been around for centuries, it’s only recently that science has proven the myth of the mad genius has its basis in fact.
The Proof Is In the Research
Multiple studies published in the reputable, peer-reviewed literature journal Scientific American confirm what philosophers and creative minds have known intuitively for centuries. They show that creative people are up to ten times more likely than the average population to suffer from depression and a whopping 20 times more likely to struggle with bipolar disorder. As a result of their increased risk of mood disorders, artists are also 18 times as likely to commit suicide than the general population.
On an anecdotal level, the average Nashville Therapist sees lots of patients seeking ways to manage their mental illnesses without giving up their musical, art, or writing careers. Many patients initially assume that seeking treatment for their mood disorders will negatively impact their art. Thankfully, that’s rarely true.
Why Are Artists More Prone to Unipolar and Bipolar Depression?
Scientists have uncovered a distinct link between mood disorders and an artistic temperament. However, there are many questions that have yet to be answered regarding why the correlation between depression and creativity exists. There are many schools of thought regarding this correlation, but many experts believe it has a biological explanation.
A Biological Predisposition Towards Creativity?
There may be a reason that bipolar disorder is more strongly correlated with creativity than unipolar depression. When people with bipolar disorder are in a manic state, they tend to think much faster and make freer associations between ideas. People in a manic state have unusual energy, a remarkable focus, and greater self-confidence, all of which may make it easier to produce original work.
According to this theory, depression is simply the flip side of a creative state. Many artists view bouts of depression as a price they must pay for periods of increased productivity and creativity. Regardless of whether people with bipolar disorder are manic or depressed, their biological systems may be more sensitive and alert, allowing them to respond to the world around them with a wider range of emotional, intellectual, perceptual, and behavioral changes.
People with bipolar disorder tend to have more variable feelings, more curiosity, higher intuition, and a more open-minded temperament than the average population. These traits are also more common in artistically minded people. Similarly, both rumination and sensitivity are associated with both depressives and artists.
A Philosophical Explanation for Depression in Creative Minds
While biological explanations may suffice for some to explain the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder, they don’t necessarily explain why artists are also more prone to unipolar depression. That may require a more philosophical explanation.
Some experts believe that creating art requires greater sensitivity. If artists fall too far on the sensitivity spectrum, it can make it harder for them to live in the world and make them more prone to periods of depression.
In addition to experiencing diagnosable unipolar or bipolar depression at greater rates than the general population, artists are also more likely to go through periods of minor depression. Some people believe that existential depression is all but inevitable in people who seek to find meaning in life through creating art.
The reality of creating art is that it requires putting in hours, days, or even years of work for just a brief period of existential satisfaction. When a novel comes out, for example, a writer may feel like he or she has done something truly meaningful. The bulk of the work required to create the novel tends to involve more frustration and discouragement than it does satisfaction, though, which can lead to depression.
Will Seeking Treatment Destroy Artists’ Creativity?
Many creative people avoid seeking treatment in the form of medication or therapy because they are afraid it will negatively impact their art or productivity. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Three-quarters of artists who take medication for bipolar disorder, for example, are at least as productive if not more productive when they take appropriate medications.
Taking medication and seeking therapy for depression can have an even greater positive impact on creativity. While periods of mania can contribute to creative productivity, depression tends to have the opposite effect. The symptoms of depression, which include lack of energy, loss of interest, and lack of pleasure from otherwise enjoyable activities, simply don’t lend themselves well to maintaining the momentum required to complete long-term projects.
Even artists who find that their existential struggles inspire them to create and reach out to others are usually better off seeking treatment. The minimal risk that medications or therapy will reduce creative output is by far outweighed by the risks associated with allowing bipolar or unipolar depression to go untreated. Just remember that not even the most inspired person can create beautiful, heart-filled art if he or she is left incapacitated or worse by a suicide attempt.
When to Seek Help
There’s never a wrong time to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional. Anyone who struggles with depression, bipolar disorder, or another mental health condition can benefit from targeted interventions like talk therapy and medications. If the burdens of being a creative, sensitive person are starting to feel too heavy to carry, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Improve Mental Health Without Reducing Creativity
If left untreated, both unipolar depression and bipolar disorder can become debilitating, taking over artists’ lives and preventing them from creating their best work. There’s no harm in exploring treatment options, as all medications and therapy are administered with the full consent of patients. Artists should seek out therapists with a background in treating similarly creative people and should go into therapy with an open mind, ready to make improvements to their mental health that could also benefit their art.