The Links Between Creativity and Depression. And how the design industry can tackle mental health

By Emily Gosling
September 12, 2016

Notions of the “tortured artist” are well-worn: who can forget Van Gogh’s severed ear; poor Sylvia Plath’s frank admissions of mental anguish, and her eventual suicide; Alexander McQueen’s heartbreaking death at his own hands?

The black dog of depression is a frequent companion to those of a creative disposition, but while we all remember the tragic tales of late artists and writers, mental health issues are prevalent for everyone. The design industry’s frequent long hours, stressful projects, glass ceilings and frantic working environments can all exacerbate latent mental health conditions, and in creative environments these conditions are purported to be more common than anywhere else.

A 2014 report published in the Guardian found similar links, stating that “painters, musicians, writers, and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants [for depression] than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual laborers, and salespeople.”

Creativity and Depression, illustration by George Douglas

Anxiety as creative force
A study published by Harvard University professors Modupe Akinola and Wendy Berry Mendes entitled “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity,” found a strong relationship between levels of an adrenal steroid (dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate, or DHEAS) previously linked to depression and artistic creativity, suggesting that those with a naturally more creative disposition were far more likely than their less creative peers to be affected by “intense negative emotions.” In keeping with the ideas of creativity emerging from dark places, it states that “situational triggers of negative affect were especially influential among those lower in DHEAS, which resulted in the most creative products.” In other words, when usually non-depressive subjects were made to feel bad about themselves, they became more creative.

Tom Fitzgerald, creative director of Melbourne-based branding agencyGuvnor, is currently in the recovery cycle of a 16-month severe depression “brought about from trying to make a living in the creative industry and running a studio,” he says. “With anxiety it’s both a pro and con. Creative personalities are often driven by doubt, and that’s what drives us to improve. Doubting comes with anxiety, but you need to learn to harness that and not be ruled by it.”

Depression’s bedfellow, mania, is also anecdotally linked to heightened creativity and output. In his 2012 article in Psychology Today, Neel Burton references a 1970 study by Nancy Andreasen. “For Andreasen, a creative person may be different from other people in that he is more open to experience, exploratory risk-taking, and tolerant of ambiguity. Such traits make him see and feel and understand more, but they also make him hurt more easily and so more prone to experience suffering and dark moods,” surmises Burton. “A creative person experiences the order and structure that others find comforting as inhibiting and even suffocating… he feels the need to escape into a richer and more nuanced ‘borderless grey.’ The freedom that he finds in this limbo enables him to enter into periods of intense concentration and focus akin to a trance or hypomanic episode. Such periods are characterized by heightened consciousness, frenzied activity, and intense productivity and are the hallmark of the creative process.”

Graphic designer Luke Wilson* suffers from anxiety and depression, a double-edged sword that simultaneously necessitates avoidance of high-pressure studio environments, and brings about a fear that he’s not creating the best work he could be. “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeking an easy, happy life, where before [being diagnosed with depression] I wanted to be the best designer in the world working for the best studios. But I was working late, wasn’t sleeping, and never saw my friends. Now I’m depressed and anxious because I worry I’m making mediocre work.”

Visibility of depression in creative culture
It’s flippant and dangerous to see depression or mania as a boon to creativity. Despite these apparent links, even the most “intensely productive” manic or depressive would likely choose to forgo their condition if they could. As Van Gogh once wrote, “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease—what things I might have done.”

“My depression has almost entirely killed my career several times. Depression wasn’t the fuel for my work, it was a boulder in the car making me run on empty more often,” says digital designer Nick Hurley. “Since starting anti-depressants I’ve been able to paint from an even wider palate of emotions than before. Being able to function more reliably than I did before means that I’m able to dedicate more of my time to doing the things I love.”

As Beth Murphy from the mental health charity Mind puts it, “It is important that we do not romanticize people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.” She adds that though personality traits associated with bipolar could benefit creatives, it could be that these people are simply more likely to choose roles that encourage their creative skills.

Creativity as therapy
The act of creating can also be therapeutic and cathartic, like London-based illustrator Murray Somerville’s No Shame in Sadness Project, and Gemma Correll’s cute depictions of her own anxiety and depression. Lettering artist Jon Tillyer* has been affected by mental health conditions over the years, and finds his work offers a solace and an outlet where other acts of self-care fail.

“Being around other people doesn’t necessarily help, but I find that making work does,” he says. “The thing I find most distracting from my own neuroses is just the process of doing something with my hands. It makes me feel much more calm. Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m not losing my mind; one of the safest places to be is sitting down with a pencil.”

The chicken-and-egg relationship between creativity and depression make simple conclusions impossible. Could work be making creatives depressed when they otherwise might not be? Could it be that by the very act of creating things, they’re more visibly suffering? Are we simply compelled to make such links, thanks to that “tortured artist” tradition?

As Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, told theGuardian, “The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data.”

The problems of agency culture
In the world of professional design, there’s still a stigma towards mental health conditions, despite increasingly open conversations about the topic. Perhaps some see admission of depression as a sign of weakness and fear their careers will be jeopardized.

Naomi Morris* is a now a writer and marketeer who previously worked for four years at a UK branding agency. Her experiences are saddening, but also worryingly familiar. “I’d cry about three times a week due to work, and because the senior designer was at me all the time because I was the youngest,” she says. “He’d never speak to you unless it was to tell you your work’s shit. I was always a junior in their eyes, even though they would hire people with less experience as mid-weight and then pass their work to me to sort out. I went from being a confident designer to feeling anxious (and wanting to cry again) when I’d get a brief in.”

In addition to her age, Morris feels that a “cliquey” culture, plus the fact she was the only woman in the agency, made things worse—she watched others around her suffering in that environment due to unrealistic pressures and poor management. “The other guy who was young had a mental breakdown because of work,” she says. “I left six months ago and I’m still having confidence issues. When I started my new job I was really suffering, thinking I wasn’t good enough, and I know it was due to that last year at my previous job. I’m sure not everywhere is like that, but after five years studying and four years practice it killed being a designer for me.”

The pressure to appear happy and coolheaded at work can also be utterly exhausting for those with anxiety or depression. Wilson found the demands of agency life so detrimental he decided to go freelance: “In an office you have to put on a face, you have to fake a smile even if you feel like shit. I just can’t do that all the time.” This need to be everything at once—business-focused, calm, hard-working, forward-thinking—can be hugely triggering. “It’s not businesslike to talk about your feelings,” he adds. “In the end I gave up as I couldn’t handle it.”

How employers can help

So what can agencies do to mitigate these triggers and support staff with depression? In the creative industries, symptoms that everything may not be A-okay are uniquely tied into some of the typical hallmarks of the job: being manic, tired, and self medicating with alcohol or drugs.

Mind has published a useful guide for employers that’s applicable to any workplace on how best to deal with mental health. The top-line advice is to foster a culture of openness and supportiveness, rather than discrimination; never make assumptions about people; ensure mental health conversations happen in appropriate places and times, and offer flexibility on hours, duties, and workspaces.

Something that worked for Fitzgerald was offering staff a 45-minute paid afternoon nap break. He sees this as having increased staffer’s capacity for truly clear, creative thinking from three to four hours each day, to up to six. For him, the ability to survive relatively mentally unscarred as a designer is all about managing expectations and striving for a good work/life balance.

Tillyer, who works as a freelancer in a shared studio, finds being able to work with similarly-minded people who aren’t reticent about expressing their feelings is a godsend. “Doing something creative is being able to express who you are,” he says. “As a freelancer, people don’t have to see my working methods or how bad a day I’m having, but I can’t be too obnoxious in the studio.” Talking about these issues—especially for men—is paramount. “Most of the men I know aren’t very open about their feelings. You have to be willing to get help and not try and block it all out.”

Hurley adds, “My depression has, strangely, also created some of the best relationships with clients I could ever hope for… I’ve found that the best people to work with, especially in the design world, are those with empathy. After all, that’s all design is really when you come down to it: empathy. Empathy for your client, empathy for you, and empathy for your user.”

In the fiercely competitive creative industries, though, is this always realistic? Agency culture is often synonymous with long hours and self-sufficiency, and many feel that any suggestion that these conditions pose difficulties isn’t met favorably by managers.

Morris says it feels as though her ex-seniors think that “if you’re not at work from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., you’re not a real designer.” She continues: “Sometimes I’d be doing 13-hour days for a week, and you can’t say no. It seems like working your way to being ill is what ‘real designers do.’ It worked out to being paid about £5 ($6.59) an hour, so it was illegal, too! I’ve seen people’s marriages break down because of work. Is that really what being a designer is about?”

Wilson’s experiences are similar, and he advises agency bosses to stand up to demanding clients for the sake of their designers’ own wellbeing. “Studios pander too much to clients, even if their demands are ridiculous,” he says. “It’s insane. You end up staying late, the directors don’t, and you’re just expected to ‘man up’–I hate that phrase. It’s the younger designers that have to bend over backwards, and that pressure can easily be lowered.”

The ability to handle employees’ mental health issues varies hugely between agencies. Manchester-based graphic designer Lauren Pennington currently works as a designer in a marketing agency, and was hospitalized for her depression a few years back. In her previous role, she found that an understanding team was crucial to her health. “It’s very hard to explain depression to people, but knowing that my team and creative director were supportive was hugely helpful,” she says. “They were always there if I needed to talk, and knew that I would have some days where I wouldn’t be that productive or might need to go home early, and they’d work around that.”

For others experiencing similar issues, Pennington recommends making lists and finding healthy forms of escapism, like reading, to be helpful. “People need to know they’re not alone, and they need to be more vocal about these issues,” she says. “It’s not as scary as people make it out to be to reach out for help. You have to realize your health comes first: learn to say no.” For Hurley, he recommends the things most of us know deep down, “eating well, exercising often, and talking openly,” and “when you have a down day recognize that you might need to take some time out—and don’t beat yourself up.”

Wilson adds, “Agencies need to treat people with a bit more respect, and realize that people need to leave at 6 p.m. People need a life, not a culture of always working late on ridiculous deadlines.”

*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity

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