Depression and Creativity

by Douglas Eby

Mood disorders often impact creative expression. About one percent of the general population suffer from manic-depression (bipolar disorder) and five percent from major depression during their lifetime. As many as a quarter of American women have a history of depression. 

According to an Allhealth site article, "The risk of depression among teen girls is high, and this risk lasts into early adulthood, US researchers report. A study of young women living in Los Angeles found that 47% had at least one episode of major depression within 5 years after high school graduation." ["Young Women at High Risk for Depression" -] 

Kay Redfield JamisonKay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and herself a person with bipolar depression, notes in her book "Touched with Fire.." that the majority of people suffering from mood disorder do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings. 

She writes, "To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the 'mad genius.' 

"Worse yet, such a generalization trivializes a very serious medical condition and, to some degree, discredits individuality in the arts as well... All the same, recent studies indicate that a high number of established artists - far more than could be expected by chance - meet the diagnostic criteria for manic-depression or major depression... 

"In fact, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people... Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression." 

The development of mood disorders may start early in life. Author and consultant C. Diane Ealy, Ph.D., in her book "The Woman's Book of Creativity" writes "Many studies have shown us that a young girl's ideas are frequently discounted by her peers and teachers. In response, she stifles her creativity... The adult who isn't expressing her creativity is falling short of her potential. 

"Repressed creativity can express itself in unhealthy relationships, overwhelming stress, severe neurotic or even psychotic behavior, and addictive behaviors such as alcoholism. But perhaps the most insidious and common manifestation of repressed creativity in women is depression." 

Consultant, writer and educator Annemarie Roeper affirms that "giftedness can be both a positive and a negative force. It is a burden when it has no channel for expression and it is not understood... Unsupportive environments can lead to depression, to the suppression of one's abilities, even to feelings of desperation that could become self-destructive."(Advanced Development Journal, 1991) 

Mary Rocamora, who counsels gifted people and heads a Los Angeles school that attracts gifted and talented adults, says those "who are passionately engaged with their talent but are constantly separated from the creative experience by relentless self-criticism, self-doubt, and feelings of inferiority often suffer from depression and the periodic shutting down of their spontaneous creative impulses. 

"The drive to express their inner creativity is heightened in many gifted individuals, and when the drive to create meets the wall of shame, it implodes into numbness, rage, depression, and hopelessness." 

She also notes that it is well known among researchers of the gifted, talented and creative that these individuals "exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability, and that this is a normal pattern of development." Dr. Linda Silverman, Director of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, has also cautioned that this higher level of excitability and intensity may be misdiagnosed as manic depression.
Prominent historical women in the arts who have reportedly experienced some form of depressive illness include Isak Dinesen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Georgia O'Keeffe and Emily Dickinson [right].

According to the online listing "Famous People Who Have Suffered from Depression or Manic-Depression," people in the arts who have declared publicly they are bipolar or unipolar include Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Sheryl Crow; Ellen DeGeneres; Charles Dickens, Patty Duke; Connie Francis; Mariette Hartley; Margot Kidder; Kristy McNichol; Kate Millett; Sinead O'Connor; Marie Osmond; Dolly Parton; Bonnie Raitt; Jeannie C. Riley; Roseanne, Axl Rose, Winona Ryder, Francesco Scavullo, Lili Taylor, Tom Waits, Robin Williams and others.
Mood disorders may also have a biochemical basis. Patty Duke, even while working as an acclaimed actress on television and film projects, also suffered the extremes of manic depression. 

In her book "A Brilliant Madness" she notes "I knew from a very young age that there was something very wrong with me, but I thought it was just that I was not a good person, that I didn't try hard enough.

"As with many people, the overt symptoms of my manic-depressive illness didn't show themselves until my late teens. And that was with a manic episode. From that time on, until I was diagnosed at the age of thirty-five, I rode a wild roller coaster, from agitated, out-of-control highs to disabling, often suicidal lows." 

Along with that diagnosis, she received lithium treatment. In the last chapter of her book, titled "Life After Manic Depression" she writes of her recovery, "The rate of growth in my mind and my heart in the last seven years is beyond measuring." 

Actress Margot Kidder, renowned for her role as Lois Lane in four "Superman" movies, has been candid about what she referred to in a People Magazine interview as "mood swings that could knock over a building." She has said she's had to battle "the demons" of mental illness throughout her adult life. Just before her disappearance last spring, and an episode of living as a homeless person in downtown Los Angeles, she had been working on her memoirs, titled "Calamities", for 10 to 12 hours a day. 

She said "It's very hard to convince a manic person that there is anything wrong with them." She has since been getting treatment, including medication, receiving a great deal of support from her family and the public, and is back to work - both as a writer and actress. 

According to some reports, only one-third to one-half of those with major depressive disorder are even properly recognized by doctors, and less than one-third of those with bipolar disorder are in treatment. A number of people may choose not to get any form of therapy. 
Jessica Lange acknowledged (US Magazine, 1995) she went through her last depression about two years previously: "and it was really a tough one. And when I came out, I felt like I had gone through something and come out the other end. And now, it seems odd to use the word, but I feel very happy... I had really tremendous mood swings. And I still do...

"But I have never been a believer in psychoanalysis or therapy or anything like that," she said. "I've never done that." In a Los Angeles Times interview (March, 1995) Lange commented "though my dark side is dormant right now, it continues to play a big role in whatever capacity I have to be creative - that's the well I'm able to tap into where all the anguish, rage and sadness are stored." 

In her book "Smart Girls Two: A New Psychology of Girls, Women and Giftedness", Professor of Psychology Barbara Kerr, responds to a letter: "Our daughter is depressed and always puts herself down; she says she's tired of being weird and different."

Kerr writes, "Depression happens when people feel that nothing they do can improve their situation - when they feel helpless and ineffectual. It sounds as though social isolation is the key to your daughter's depression; she feels trapped by her role as a 'weirdo' and doesn't want to try any more to be like the others. And the more intelligent she is, the harder she has had to try." 

Another aspect of being exceptional and finding it hard to be "other" is the difficulty for many gifted women to find meaningful romantic relationships, a difficulty which may also contribute to depression. 

Dr. Kerr writes, "Just because women are intellectually mature and gifted doesn't mean that they haven't bought the American romantic myth lock, stock and barrel... that he will sweep you off your feet... you will agree on everything, and will share all your deepest feelings with one another." 

One of the characteristics often associated with giftedness is divergent thinking - unusual, original and creative perception, often with a high degree of fantasy. 

Clinical psychologist Deirdre Lovecky ("Warts and Rainbows: Issues in the Psychotherapy of the Gifted", Advanced Development Journal, 1990) points out that many women who are divergent thinkers "may suffer special social risks.

"From early childhood on, much more conformity is expected from females... Women who are highly divergent thinkers will disagree with authority, express unpopular viewpoints, and put their own interests ahead of others... 

"Many divergent thinkers have trouble trusting in relationships because they have found so little acceptance for their unique selves. The resulting poor self-esteem and lack of connectedness to significant others may precipitate lifelong problems with depression." 

The existential aspects of life as an artist, especially the sense of meaning one finds in work and your place in the world, may have a central impact on depression. Psychotherapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, Ph.D., wrote in one of his newsletters, "I have also seen even serious depression lift after only one creativity coaching session. 

"This happens because a client has renewed hope, a renewed sense of purpose, a clearer picture of what next steps to take in her creative life, and a renewed sense that she matters and must act as if she matters."

Dealing with depression and its causes may take tremendous strength and courage.

In her book "Remarkable Women - Perspectives on Female Talent Development" psychologist Kathleen Noble writes about the need for resilience "to overcome the constraints that have thwarted the expression of female giftedness. For gifted women who seek to overturn the psychosocial, religious, and historical forces that limit all women's potential as persons and citizens, resilience is essential, however arduous its achievement might be." 

Resilience, she identifies as "a trifold process of recognizing and resisting the intrinsic and extrinsic obstacles that inhibit the development of one's potential and taking responsibility for the evolution of ourselves, our cultures, and our world." 

Realizing one's talents and dealing with issues -- such as mood disorders -- that impede that expression may be deeply challenging, but the rewards may also be profound. 

More articles by Douglas Eby

Main sites:

Depression and Creativity

Talent Development Resources


Andy Behrman. Electroboy : A Memoir of Mania

David Burns. The Feeling Good Handbook 
"Dr. David Burns is one of the prime developers of cognitive therapy, a fast-acting, drug-free treatment designed to help the clinically depressed. ... [the book] is filled with charts, quizzes, weekly self-assessment tests, and a daily mood log, ... actively engages its readers in their own recovery." [ review]

Patty Duke. A Brilliant Madness  [on her experiences with bipolar disorder] 

Dennis Greenberger, Christine A. Padesky. Mind Over Mood

D. Jablow Hershman. Manic Depression and Creativity

Kay Redfield Jamison. Touched With Fire - Manic Depressive Illnes & the Artistic Temperament

Eric Maisel, PhD. The Van Gogh Blues - The Creative Person's Path Through Depression

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more ...Depression articles....... depression books

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Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning, by Eric Maisel, PhD.


The Depression Advantage