It would be hard for any listener of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to deny the pain within its beauty, and for many artists, it’s the pain within that helps them create powerful art. It’s well known that some of the world’s most beloved artists have battled with depression. Tchaikovsky, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, John Keats, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, even Beyonce, 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 a 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.
“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. Take a look at your sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise and outlet for stress/recreation, leisure or hobby activities and assess what needs support. When our self care is high, our resiliency and coping increase.”
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 fools game, but there is something to be said about creating crap 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 inspired. She continues, “Going to an art gallery, museum or a creative space (sculpture garden, local gift shop, bookstore, etc.) is a form of self care 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 walk can be a simple way of re-training our 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.”
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 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.“
We’ve lost some of the world’s greatest artists to mental illness and suicide. Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Robin Williams and Ernest Hemingway 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 state. Depression is an illness that requires treatment. It’s not just a trope used in movies. If you are feeling depressed, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you have creative friends, call them, check up on them, 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.