Have you ever heard that depression is what makes an artist creative? Some of the most recognizable, well-known musicians, authors, and painters have or had some form of mental illness. Actually, this concept is so ubiquitous that there are several television tropes that explore the concept of art made by the depressed. Concepts like true art is angsty[i] and cope by creating[ii] are popular in our society. They paint a picture of the deeply sad, mentally and physically unhealthy, alcoholic artist who can’t help but create because otherwise they would probably die. Real-life examples of creative genius in the mentally ill, combined with a romanticized vision of those people’s lives, has many wondering if mental illness is the key to inspiration.
However, people who experience depression, anxiety, OCD, and other mental health conditions aren’t one dimensional. People can’t be boiled down to vessels for their depression, or used as nothing but inspiration for those who will someday admire their work. We all know that every person has layers and nuances. That’s what makes each of us an individual. Trauma looks different for everyone, and what might inspire the outcast teen of our generation was a real, sometimes deadly life experience for someone else. Still, stories of people such as Kurt Cobain or Van Gogh are made sentimental and are idealized despite their harsh and tragic realities. Though I can’t speak for either of them, or any of the other depressed artists you might be thinking about right now, I can say this: depression has never helped me create anything.
Science suggests that creativity benefits from higher levels of intelligence. One study conducted at the University of Graz[iii] in Austria discussed the idea that higher levels of intellect may provide individuals with higher creative potential. As someone with depression who associates with a multitude of other depressed or otherwise mentally ill people, I can confirm that many of them are both creative and highly intelligent. It may be true that depression and creativity are connected, but that doesn’t mean that depression is essential to creativity. Maybe it means that intelligent and creative people tend to see the world a little more clearly. High intelligence allows many people to see more shades of grey, more facets of different arguments and concepts. Those who can’t boast a high intelligence often don’t have the potential to look at the world around them so closely. As they say, “ignorance is bliss.” Even if it might appear at first glance like you can’t have creativity without depression, I don’t believe that. Instead, I think that for many, depression is a symptom of a high level of awareness about the world and its horrors.
Truthfully, a lot of great art does address issues of mental health. Many of my favourite video games, movies, and television shows tackle things like suicide, trauma, and mental illness with all the depth and nuance that those topics deserve. Some of the greatest songs and paintings of all time might not have come into the world – at least not in their current form – without the artist’s experience of depression. But I have to wonder how many more incredible things might have come into existence if some of those artists, lost too soon, were able to get the help they needed. What if they had been able to come out the other side of their experience alive, healthier and stronger. I wonder how grateful their families would have been to see them happy, or what amazing experiences they could have had if they had found a path to contentment.
When my depression is at its worst, I don’t create. I consume a lot of content – and goodness knows that is an absolutely essential part of creating – but when I am at my worst, I find it impossible to express myself. It has taken a lot of work and time for me to arrive at a place where I can cope with depression and continue with my life. There were times I thought I’d never be able to do it, and I’m sure there will be times ahead when I’ll be afraid that I’ll never create again or that I might not survive my illness. But each time that I've been wrestled to the ground by depression, I've gained an immense amount of strength from the effort it takes to get back up.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that none of my work has been influenced by my illness, or that I don’t tap into my trauma in order to add layers to my stories. I do both of those things, and I suspect many other writers do too. But the experiences that have allowed me to mine that vein aren’t the moments I spent lying in bed unable to even put my feet on the floor. The experiences that lend me power are the moments when I took steps forward, and the moments of strength that healed me and allowed me to continue down my path.
Some people say depression and suicide are caused by weakness. They’re not. It’s not due to a fundamental fault that people become ill. Many factors contribute to suffering, every person’s journey is different. I believe that anyone who has faced mental illness and lived will agree that it’s the moments where we fought our depression and won that changed us the most. Those are the inspirational memories that motivate us. Those are the experiences that helped us succeed. People often say things like, “you’ve been through worse, you can get through this,” and I think that’s true. But I prefer these words by Ursula Le Guin[iv]: make a virtue of your peculiarities.
That’s what we are doing doing when we mine our depression for inspiration. That’s what it is when I take a moment to remember what it feels like to gather inner strength. I’m making a virtue of what I’ve lived through, smelting nuggets that I’ve collected along my path. It’s not depression that artists need to be creative, of that much I’m sure. What we need, now more than ever, is the courage to see the world how it is. We need the courage to keep on living. Because the truth is, dear reader, that living is what gives an artist the materials to create their masterpiece. Without paint, a painter is just a dreamer with nowhere to dip their brush.
[i] True Art Is Angsty. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TrueArtIsAngsty
[ii] Cope by Creating. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CopeByCreating
[iii] Jauk, E., Benedek, M., Dunst, B., & Neubauer, A. (2013, July). The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection. Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3682183/
[iv] A quote from The Dispossessed. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/809119-there-s-a-point-around-the-age-of-twenty-when-you
Story fanatic. Published in the Camosun College literary journal Beside the Point. Former Senior Staff Writer at The Martlet. Current and future freelance writer.