F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pete Davidson, and Owen Wilson: On art and depression
I have an irrational fear, and it’s not a common one. It’s more intangible and surreptitious than your usual phobias (like clowns, heights, or snakes) and yet it still manages to cast an unsettling pall over everything I do. It stems from a lack of confidence in my identity and abilities – not an identity crisis per say, just insecurity about my core being – and is reinforced virtually daily by the celebration of some of our most revered artists and entertainers. Bo Burnham. Kristen Bell. Jim Carrey. J.K. Rowling. Mac Miller. Avicii. Owen Wilson. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Freddie Mercury. Pete Davidson. Neil Hilborn.
My idée fixe is this: creativity is inexplicably and inextricably linked with poor mental health. I’m worried, on a visceral level, that any step I take towards improving my cerebral wellbeing will result in an inability to write or produce.
I’m not the first person to make this connection. Canonical writers have been documenting their struggles with mental illness for decades; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, is essentially a celebration of severe depression. Tennessee Williams, another great American writer, wrote two separate classic works about heroines suffering from mental illness (The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire). Literary genius and depression almost go hand-in-hand, a relationship facilitated by both the solitary nature of the pursuit and the introspective need for authenticity that drives writers to fixate on difficulty.
But, as evident by my earlier list of celebrated creators, writers aren’t the only artists who struggle with mental health. The influence of depression in comedy, specifically, has become almost the norm. Our most popular comedians – Bo Burnham, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres – all openly joke about their mental distress in their acts. Nobody has really been able to identify a concrete reason for this. Some believe joking about tragedy and distress leaves both the performer and audience with a feeling of control over their situation, essentially relieving tension and anxiety. Others, recognizing that many comedians have higher-than-average to well-above-average intelligence, identify that as the link and ignore the jokes altogether. A minority believe it’s the split between comedians’ emotionally flat tendencies and extroverted impulsivity that’s the root of the problem.
And then, of course, you have the musicians. Mac Miller’s recent death, Avicii’s overdose, and Chester Bennington’s suicide have all contributed to a growing awareness of mental illness in music (a tradition that truly began with Kurt Cobain, all the way back in 1994). Many of those drawn to performing have an inherent need for acceptance, and the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in the industry makes for an uneasy combination.
No matter the genre or style, those who engage in creative endeavors seemed destined for mental distress. So what’s the link?
Scientific attempts to resolve this question have, until now, been laughably contradictory. Recently, however, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science seeks to consolidate and summarize the existing body of research with surgical precision. Christa Taylor, of Albany State University, identified a relevant 36 studies (out of almost 3000) on the creativity-mood disorder relationship that were potentially relevant. Combining data from these studies into a set of ‘meta-analyses,’ she was able to make distinct and definitive claims about how mental health influence creativity.
Data from ten studies involving fine arts students, creative writers, and other eminent artists and entertainers tell us that there is a clear relationship between being creative and having a diagnosis of a mood disorder like depression. Taylor’s findings specifically emphasize the link between creativity and specific disorders: not only are creators more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than anything else, but modest evidence also suggests that those with bipolar disorder possess superior creativity.
This relationship could be driven by virtually anything. Maybe mood disorder helps creativity, but the benefit is usually buried under other disadvantage that prevent it from showing up in most studies. Maybe mental illness provokes introspectiveness, and the development of new perspectives. Maybe creativity itself generates mood disorder, as a byproduct of the draining and solitary lifestyle of many creators.
I am terrified by this lack of definition. How can I begin to fix myself if I can’t pinpoint the consequences of doing so? What if I lose my ability to produce, to write, to be creative? More importantly, what does it mean if I allow brokenness to become a core component of who I am? My passions and talents are a product of my dissatisfaction with both myself and the world around me. If creativity and depression are linked – and the evidence suggests that they are – then where do I go from here?