depression and creativity
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How to Deal with Depression as an Artist

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For many artists, it’s the pain within that helps them create powerful art. The myth of the “tortured artist” or the artist who must suffer for her art to be creative and inspired exists for a reason. It’s well known that some of the world’s most beloved artists have battled depression. Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Alice Neel have battled mental illness. So why – if it’s so well established that depression and creativity are often linked – do we have such a difficult time confronting our demons? Perhaps because it’s harder than it looks to admit you’re not well and need help.

If you’re an artist feeling depressed, you should know you are not alone, and you are not crazy. The feeling of not being able to breathe, as if the world is swallowing you whole, is terrifying. It would make anyone feel like they’re losing grip on reality, but it’s just that: a feeling. And like the waves of the ocean, feelings come and go. As soon as you begin to feel emotionally depleted, take pause. Here, we ask mental health professionals to unveil some self-care techniques that will help you get past your darker days.

Artists and Depression: A Common Pairing

Depression itself is a difficult thing to live with, and when compounded by challenges in your creative process, it can seem like artists and depression share an uncommon bond. For writers, the months of rejected pitches and declined pieces can feel like years of denial. For artists, taking on a new series after a few successful sales can feel like an unachievable climb. The same goes for musicians or designers when the inspiration just stops coming. Difficult moments are common in the lives of artists, so we must be careful not to slip into dark oblivion.

Megan Gunnell, LMSW, is a psychotherapist and international retreat leader working in Grosse Pointe, MI. She explains that “Creatives are sometimes highly sensitive souls. Our need for restoration and renewal can be higher than others. We can also be overstimulated easily and need opportunities for quietude and replenishment.“ She notes that these feelings need to be identified and dealt with if they are to pass.

Artist Depression and Self-Care

“When we open ourselves up to using our senses to experience the moment and bring our full presence and attention to what’s in front of us, it can increase our thoughts and experiences of gratitude and joy,” Gunnell says. “Self-care is always important too. When we feel overloaded, situationally depressed, or burned out, it’s an indicator our self-care needs our attention. When our self-care is high, our resiliency and coping increase.”

Take a look at these factors to assess what needs support:

  • sleep
  • nutrition
  • hydration
  • exercise and outlet for stress/recreation
  • leisure or hobby activities

If you can’t summon the strength to get out of bed or the house, that’s okay too. Don’t waste energy pitying yourself for not being able to get up and go. Feeling depressed is a serious matter, and if your body is telling you it needs rest, it probably does.

Using essential oils with meditative breathing can be transformational in moments where you feel restless. If you’re able, order yourself eucalyptus or tea tree essential oil. Unlike the traditional relaxing scent of lavender, eucalyptus and tea tree are powerfully recharging and can help clear the cobwebs of a dreary grey period. Place a few drops on your pressure points: inside your wrist, behind your ears, and on your temples. Take a few long deep breaths while smelling the scent. It’s a fix quick to knock out some of the looming sadness and help get you inspired to get up and moving.

Depression and Creativity Don’t Have to Go Hand-in-Hand

The waiting-for-inspiration myth is a fool’s game, but there is something to be said about creating bard work while you wait for the good stuff to arrive. Sometimes when artists hit a rough patch of inspiration, it feels like the well is dry, and they’ll never create again. The weight of realizing you may not be in your art for the long haul can feel crushing, and then the doubt and anxiety can pile on. It’s not an enjoyable time but rarely is your inner monologue correct. Inspiration may be elusive, but it will surely come back. In the meantime, let yourself create work that you think sucks, just to get it out, and then look outside yourself.

Gunnell suggests searching for ways to be more positive and inspired:

  • Going to an art gallery, museum, or creative space (sculpture garden, local gift shop, bookstore, etc.) is a form of self-care that can help us see things through a fresh, new lens. It can help us expand into greater mental possibilities and inspire us to take risks in original thought again,” she says.
  • A beauty or nature walk can be a simple way of re-training your brain to search for the positive. When we set an intention to seek aesthetic pleasure, we begin to feel a sense of awe and wonder by forces that are greater than us. Time spent in nature helps us move from a micro-frame to a macro frame, again expanding ourselves into a greater possibility beyond our momentary struggle and strife.

It’s also on us as a part of a creative community to step up and care for those around us, especially when they’re not asking for help. When Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, took his life last year, it broke many fans’ hearts in a distinct way. Just one month prior, the music community lost a rock icon when Chris Cornell took his own life. Reflecting on these artists’ work, it became clear that the men who helped others get through their own period of depression were the same men plagued and taken away by the very same thing. It’s crushing to know you can’t save those who’ve saved you.

Stephanie Kibbe, a tour manager based in Brooklyn, NY, agrees that it’s important to recognize that fellow creatives might be going through the same issues. “I think sometimes we forget as a community that just because an artist created art from their pain, it doesn’t always mean that they’ve worked through said pain,” she says. Case in point, Chester Bennington from Linkin Park. He displayed his pain very prominently for the world to see, and then we were seemingly blindsided at the news of his suicide.”

self care
Being depressed doesn’t mean you’re a moody artist, it’s a disease.

Don’t Hesitate to Reach Out, but Practice Self-Care

We can’t be everywhere for everybody, but we can be there for our friends. One way to do this is to make the call. We rely on texts and social media to stay connected, but a conversation can be incredibly powerful. We’re all busy, but the voice of another person on the other end of a phone or coffee table is irreplaceable. The process of creation, whether it’s visual, music or writing, can be an isolating experience, so it’s important to stay connected. We expect others to care for themselves, but as members of a larger creative community, it’s on us to check in on one another. Call and get their voicemail. Leave a message. Tell them you’ve been thinking about them and want to know how they are. You may care for someone deeply, but unless you tell them, they won’t know it. Unless you ask how they are, they won’t share.

There are limits, of course. Kibbe warns that helping a fellow artist with depression shouldn’t take priority over your own self-care. “From a self-care standpoint, you have to be really careful about committing to being a positive influence in an artist’s life. You have to set very clear boundaries for yourself so you don’t get sucked into their darkness and revive some of your own demons you’ve already slain. If you aren’t strong enough to hold them up, find someone who is.”

Make your wider creative community aware. Invite your friend to events and orchestrate human connection. If you notice them retreating, take action and talk to them about other ways to get help: support groups, listening sessions, and therapy. According to Gunnell, asking “What do you need right now?” or “What would be most helpful?” gives the person a sense of control and decision-making power where sometimes that feels strained, difficult, or out of reach. She adds that “… it’s also helpful to remind friends to “be gentle with yourself” which can prompt someone to lean into healthy coping mechanisms without sounding pushy.“

For more tips on how to practice self-care, listen to Culture Coach, TedX Speaker, and CEO/Founder of Path for Life Jeanette Bronée on our Creative Careers Podcast.

We’ve lost some of the world’s greatest artists to mental illness and suicide. Kurt Cobain, Francesca Williams, Robin Williams, and Sylvia Plath all took their own lives. But we can do more to prevent future creatives from following down that path. Instead of accepting depression and the stereotype of the “moody artist,” we have to push back and understand lives are at stake.

Get Help

Depression is an illness that requires treatment. If you are feeling depressed, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you have creative friends, call them, check up on them, and stop by for a visit. You might not see it, but if you’re in a creative community, there are sure to be people around you suffering right now. Depression is silent but deadly, so let’s embrace the challenge to help save those we love and whose work we treasure.

How to Deal with Depression as an Artist

About the author

Rachel Wells

Rachel Wells is a writer based in Nashville, TN. In addition to her writing, she has a professional background in content development, digital distribution and public relations. Her projects and clients have been featured in the The New York Times, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine and Pitchfork.

6 Comments

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  • Worthwhile article, Rachel, with many good points, but mainly that there is such a thing as depression and that there are ways to combat it. Depression and related diseases are a fact, and affect hundreds of millions of people globally. The statistics are readily available on such links as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to name a few, as well as sources for its treatment.

    It is an affliction that affects not only the artistic community but all walks of life. It is not so much that pain and depression are a requirement for creativity, it is that besides thought feelings are, which can be both good or bad, happy or sad, peaceful or angry, from which through vision and skill a product is created, that is then shared with others to identify with, to help us collectively feel our humanity.

    It goes without saying that the luminary artists you mention worked around the clock. Michelangelo definitely did, and that this makes for a very difficult well-rounded existence that incorporates other necessary aspects of life beyond work. The same applies to someone like Abraham Lincoln who resiliently fought his depressions through work.

    Given the topic, your article is very worthwhile, Rachel, may make some think, and if afflicted seek help to establish life-style changes. All in all life is a good thing, and should be appreciated in its upmost, and maybe even make some good art, or anything, in the process.

  • The hardest part for people with depression, especially creative people, is that they also often lack self-esteem. I know many very creative people that are too afraid to put their work out there. Putting your creative work out can cause a lot of anxiety and further depression because of REJECTION. It’s a struggle for so many If a coach could help people suffering from anxiety and depression to actually move ahead and offering marketing tips that work and encouragement to help put their creative work out and be successful, they would be booked solid. The world needs to see this art – someone needs to build a bridge and understand depression and anxiety.

    • Dear Mary,
      Yes, that’s right- a depressed artist isn’t going to have any self confidence and I shoud know!
      My main problem is not a creative block so much as being a fish out of water in the galleries /art world. People who see my art on my walls like it and buy it but galleries always turn me away!

  • I landed on this site due to my depressed state of mind. Yes, I am an artist, and have been my entire life. Ever since I left the publishing industry, where I was paid to design and art direct the editorial pages, I wanted to dig deep and see if I had the gift to paint. So, I returned to the fine arts when I moved to NH. I’ve sold a few, and with bitterness…not enough. In the past three months I invested in a high tech marketing company to give me a branding and selling platform. My work didn’t take off as I had anticipated, and this huge disappointment has brought me to the depths of depression. I’m so disgusted. I don’t know what I’m expecting here. I know I’m reaching out for my life, for the work that soothes and feeds my soul, and I want the world to enjoy it too.

  • My issue is that, over my entire life, despite tremendous support from friends, family and the occasional agent or big-pocketed person or media company, that I am an utter failure financially despite having the absolute respect of my peers. The public simply doesn’t want what I have to offer. But I am now 60 and still broke, after being broke my entire life except for 2 years in the 00’s where I made over $100,000 each year and I thought this aspect of suffering was finally over. I have thoughts of suicide – I have no property and no children and I had to move out of NYC because of the rents.

    I am finally seeing that, despite the excitement and praise and encouragement of my current agent, who has gotten rejected from every single outlet he’s approached on my behalf over the last 11 months. that I can look forward to a future of food stamps, medical issues unadressed because medicaid won’t pay for them and I can’t sell my body on the street, and just more of the same.

    I have a therapist, I am on medication, I have no problem whatsoever producing content or being creative – its just the “Making money” part of it that, apparantly, I completely suck at, or God simply hates me. I volunteer in my community, I take homeless people to job interviews and get them blankets, but…no reward except “These four walls.”

    Angry, frustrated, sad and hopeless, sorry to say, today.

    Would i do it again? Absolutely. Like my talented father before me, who died broke and in squalor, there isn ‘t anything else I want to do.

    Thank you for listening…maybe next life.

    Sorry I’m not more hopeful today.

  • I got goosebumps when you mentioned Chester Bennington. He was the best and he will always be my favourite singer. It’s heartbreaking that he is no longer here with us as well as all the others who took their lives. Chester’s songs saved my life. I still continue to struggle with my mental health, I need help but can’t seem to ask for it.

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