Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf all had something in common. They all suffered from depression. There have been fascinating studies in the past few decades that acknowledge a link between creativity and depression. In fact, a large number of the world’s greatest composers, writers and artists have suffered from various forms of mental illness, from depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This realization isn’t surprising, though, if you know creative people.
My own circle of friends, for example, consists of brilliant, expressive, interesting people who, well, just feel things more deeply than others. We’ve suffered personal traumas, examined the existence of others and question the world around us. We’re compelled to find the meaning of it all and, in searching for that meaning, we feel a need to express what we discover. All of that emotion, a blessing and a burden, fuels our artistic process and attempts to create art that expresses our condition: the human condition.
The reasons behind the connection between depression and creativity aren’t clear, though both creative thinking and emotional disorders involve unusual frontal lobe activity and atypical dopamine levels. Whatever the connection, many artists avoid treatment of even the most debilitating disorders, because the result of quieting their demons through clinical means also suppresses the very creativity that makes them feel grounded and connected to the world around them. While I’m not suggesting that people leave major disorders untreated, when it comes to depression, there may be cause to examine the connection further. Edvard Munch, addressed this issue when he said, “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.”
Are we artists because we are so deeply emotional or are we emotional because we’re artists? I have to believe that the answer to the question is – both. I think our experiences, combined with our creative tendencies, steer us toward a need to purge, explain and express. (My theater friends and I often joke that the reason we became performers was because it was cheaper than therapy.) But I also think that we can be prone to depression because of the highly emotional aspect of our individual crafts. In addition, the solitude and emotional preparation that surrounds the creative process can, at times, make us susceptible to loneliness and sadness. All people experience despair and difficulty in life. What makes us unique as artists is our ability to channel that angst and use it for good. It is our art, after all, that provides us with a productive outlet for our emotions, both healing us and touching the lives of others. Best of all, creative people also experience life’s positive moments (joy, gratitude and wonder) more deeply, too.