Creativity and Depression: What Causes The Link?

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The World Health Organization estimates that over 121 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression. It is one of the world’s most common mental disorders and with 30% of sufferers attempting suicide, I’m not lying when I say that depression kills. With the death of Robin Williams still fresh in the minds of the public, the question has been raised of why the most brilliant minds are those of sufferers. Creative types have been proven to be the group most affected by the disorder, with people such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Michelangelo all being effected. Is this due to nothing but their unique thought processes or could it be something else?

It has been proven that as a species, human beings are drawn to those with whom we share ideas and have similar thoughts with. Studies have shown this time and time again, such as in Newcomb’s 1956 experiment where he found that men liked their housemates more if they had similar attitudes about sex, family, and politics. This is because people enjoy feeling validated, are impressed when others have the same taste as them, and find it easier to talk to those with the same interests. So it is reasonable to assume that if a person is unable to find someone with a similar thought process to them they will become lonely and may end up suffering from depression

Creative people have the most unique of minds and therefore we can draw the conclusion that, as clichéd as it sounds, no one understands them.

However, Newcomb’s study was flawed in many ways. Its gender bias and small sample size of 17 means that it can’t be generalised to the entire population, and it fails to explore deeper levels of thought. This means that whilst people may be more agreeable when they have the same views, it doesn’t mean those with different views are shunned from society.

So, what does cause such high levels of depression in the more creative half of the population?

Akinola and Mendes (2008) conducted a study that looked at the role of rejection when it comes to creativity. Participants were given either positive, negative, or no feedback on a speaking task and then asked to produce a collage, with the participants exposed to negative feedback (rejection) producing more creative collages than participants in the control group and the positive feedback group. This suggests that social rejection (a particular symptom of depression) may be responsible for increased creativity or, in other words, depression causes creativity instead of creativity causing depression. It is crucial to think critically when it comes to the art in order to reach your optimum capability, but with the problem over thinking is that self-doubt often follows and with that lower self confidence, making it easier to slip into depression. Perhaps the cause of such mental issues with creative people is that they get too used to judging their work and slowly begin judging themselves. I know that I am guilty of doing this as it becomes hard to distinguish between the two, especially when you put so much heart into what you’re working on that it almost becomes a part of you. The role of an artist is to always dance on that dangerous line and for many, the dance is too hard to keep up.

Do you suffer from the same struggles? Which theory do you support – depression causing creativity or creativity causing depression?

– Charlotte

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