Creativity and Depression

by Betty Spackman

Betty Spackman, M.F.A.

I had the privilege of participating in this year’s CCCA Annual Arts Symposium hosted by the Center for Christianity and Culture at BIOLA University in La Mirada, California. I was invited to help facilitate a workshop entitled, “The Dark Side of Creativity: Creativity and Depression,” with Dr. Kevin Van Lant, a clinical psychologist and professor at BIOLA, along with an artist from the Los Angeles area.

Dr. Van Lant gave some statistics of the correlation between creative individuals and mental health, citing various artists who had suffered from severe depression and had committed suicide. His list included the percentage of suicides in the US at any given time by those who had committed suicide in different creative disciplines: actors, 3.9%, dancers, 2.3%, musicians 2.1%, photographers, 2.8%, visual artists 3.0% and writers 4.5%. 

This of course opened up the many questions surrounding the myths and actual correlations between mental health and creativity, some of which are addressed in the new book, Wired to Create by Dr. Scott Barry Kauffman, who was the keynote speaker for the symposium.  Dr. Kauffman has done extensive research on the brains of creative individuals. I would recommend his book to anyone interested in how the creative mind operates. He talks, for example, about discoveries of various networks in the brain that are related to imagination and discusses things like how dopamine production is linked not only creativity but to psychotic symptoms as well.

The visual artist who spoke, openly shared his very personal journey as a creative person who wrestles with clinical depression. His candid remarks included how his artistic practice suffered and stressed that though his art making is now part of the process of managing his depression, anyone suffering in this way needs professional help. Art therapy (making art) may reveal problems but is not always enough to heal them.

I came to this session as a non-expert mostly with questions and a passion for those many artists I know personally who are suffering from various levels and types of depression; from bouts of sullen moodiness that stop their creative flow, to the darkest side of emotional despair that brought them to a place of contemplating suicide. We have had many discussions in my studio about these serious issues.

I examined myself before I attended the symposium, as someone not clinically depressed, but who suffers times of what I’ll call ‘fog and bog,’ when I am miserable and can’t work well or at all. In reflecting on these times I realized, for me, there are two basic reasons I become ‘unhappy’ and find myself in varying degrees of dysfunction. 

What I Want

The first sources of my occasional bouts of ‘depression’ have resulted by not getting what I want - be it anything from attention to materials to opportunities.   This is a very common human problem and one that as a Christian I have concrete ways to deal with if I choose to do so.  Scripture tells me to  “wrestle with every thought until it comes under the authority of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:5) and that there are choices I can make against self-pity, jealousy, anger, greed, and so on.  I need to learn continually, with God’s help, “to be content in whatever state I’m in” (Philippians 4:11). According to 1Timothy 6:8, if we have food and clothing, we should be content.  Although I have periodically been without a home and have lived in my car on more than one occasion, I have never been without food for long and never without clothing, and although my 20 year old wardrobe does make me yearn for something new it is certainly not life-threatening and my desire for more is mostly about my pride. Compared to so many people who genuinely suffer severe poverty and homelessness, my problems are minor.  But our egos are strong and selfishness is a constant temptation we need to wrestle to its knees.

Desires are not bad; they are part of our being able to dream, and to find our way in life. However, when they come before my desire for God they can actually prevent me from getting what I need. I think of King Solomon’s dream where God asked him what he wanted. Instead of asking something for himself, Solomon asked for wisdom to lead the people.  Because of this God gave him everything he could ever imagine as well (1 Kings 3). Jesus tells us: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you”  (Matthew 6:33).

When I am miserable because I don’t get my own way, or don't get certain things I want for my life or my work as an artist, I need to examine my heart and pray that I would have the humble, unselfish mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5).  Even when it is not something unhealthy I want such as the  “deceitful lusts” mentioned in Ephesians 4 (and I’ve had my share of those), I am aware that desiring anything – good or bad - with misspent energy and greed distracts me from living freely. I expect it also prevents God from fully blessing me as He blessed Solomon. 

What I Need

The second reason I become ‘depressed’ in different ways and for different lengths of time, is that I don’t get what I actually need. Talking to artists who suffer from depression at different times in their lives I know this is often the case for them as well. And as some of us compared notes before I went to the symposium there were common things we identified as particular needs of the creative person.

There are of course basic practical needs that differ with each visual artist and artists from every discipline. Needing space to create for example, which usually is even more important than money, is often a prerequisite to being able to produce work.  Although being restricted in space and lacking other resources helps us rethink projects for the better, sometimes it can prevent an art project from happening at all and not being able to make art when every fiber of your brain and being is wired to do so, can make one ‘soul sick,’ for lack of a better term. These problems are both fundamental and extremely difficult but there are more basic human needs that can cripple us as artists.

The more personal needs, the things that can bring us to a place of despair are more about how we are actually “wired’ neurologically, as Dr. Kauffman addresses in his book. He mentions 10 traits of highly creative people: imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity into advantage and thinking differently. 

If the 10 things Dr. Kauffman mentions in his book as characteristic of creative people are true:  

1. That they must engage in “Imaginative Play” in a world that regards play as a secondary activity to something we call ‘work’ and that

2. Creative people have “Passion” in societies where following the status quo is considered more efficient and proper, and that

3. They “Daydream,” which is considered by most to be just a complete waste of time, and that

4. They “Require Solitude,” which to many just proves that ‘those artist types’ are unsociable geeks and weirdoes, and that

5. They often depend on their “Intuition,” which is mostly considered by the academic world unreliable, even ‘flaky’ and that

6. They are “Open to New Experiences,” sometimes way too open in some peoples opinion, and that
7. Creative people are “Mindful” and

8. “Sensitive,” sometimes translated ‘moody,’ and in a misogynous way – ‘feminine’ and that

9. They can basically make lemonade out of their suffering, “Turning Adversity into Advantage,” (which often really annoys people) and if

10. They continually “Think differently” than others…then there are bound to be problems!

I watched a bird crash into a patio window once and I thought he was doing nothing wrong flying the way he was built to fly. It was the glass that was the problem.  This is related to something I heard an architect once say.  He shared that after he builds a building he waits for several months before he lays the sidewalks. First he watches where the path is worn on the ground as people find their natural route to the door. He then lays the sidewalk under their footsteps! 

Whether we are aware that we are creative beings or not, we are so often forced to walk on straight paths that are unnatural or fly into walls that shouldn’t be there.  And when our whole being is wired to fly outside the box and to not walk in straight lines, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society when you are a round peg is painful to say the least.

Some of these traits are echoed in the things my fellow artists listed as challenges to their sense of wellbeing.  Although any creative human can have similar issues, these are needs sited by some of the visual artists I know.

  • Time and Solitude

Artists often require a lot of time alone to conceive and daydream and problem solve creative ideas.When this is not possible there is frustration and with prolonged lack of time in solitude, depression.

  • Expectations

There are usually high expectations to produce something unique and new, especially if the artist is connected to a commercial gallery. This pressure often interferes with a more natural flow in the creative process.

  • Acceptance and belonging

Because artists tend to think outside the box they are not always accepted in the various communities to which they belong.Feeling marginalized or even rejected is an emotional drain and a constant discouragement.Although mature artists should not depend on praise or criticism all of us need some sense of belonging. Artists periodically face various kinds of censorship and persecution in different countries and communities because they do not follow the status quo in their thinking or expression and therefore do not fit into the standardized packages of particular social systems.

  • False Identities

Artists live with the myths and clichés about being an artist: lazy, licentious, hysterical, druggies, etc., or the romanticized identity of being an inspired genius, or even a prophet.

  • Gender Issues

Women in the art world still struggle for equity and suffer various forms of misogyny. Also sexual orientation can become a handicap for being able to make-work or show work freely in some places.

  • Being devalued and disrespected

Artists don’t always get paid for what they are trained to do but have to do other jobs or teach in order to keep working at their art practice.Because they don’t make money at something they may even have high University degrees for, they are often not given credibility by even those in their community or family.

  • Sensitivity

Artists are often very sensitive and therefore very vulnerable. For me, something I have learned I need in order to be “well” in my mind and emotions is something I will call ‘beauty.’ To explain this let me tell you three incidents from my life as an artist…

Once when I was living in a very northern city in Canada where the winters lasted for about 8 months I was setting up a Christian bookstore with some friends and we wanted flowers for our opening.  When I went to the florist they had just received all the spring flowers – tulips and daffodils and hyacinths  - and when I opened the door of the shop the assault of color and smell on my senses was overwhelming and I burst into tears!  I had been deprived, especially of color for so long, my whole being felt as though I had just seen someone rise from the dead.

Another time when I was going through a particularly dark time in my life, struggling to know if I was even an artist or not and not knowing what God wanted me to do, a friend, who was herself suffering from a major depression that kept her in bed for three months, gave me a large amber glass fishing float.  Holding this glass ball in the light and looking through it was for me like taking a long drink of water.  I could feel it physiologically.  It lifted me out of my depression, refreshed and inspired me.

And once, in my Toronto studio when I was sick in bed and not knowing if I was psychologically or physically ill because they are so closely connected, I woke up one morning knowing that I needed to surround myself with the color yellow.  I was painting in oils at that time and gathered every tube of yellow paint I could find in my studio – from deep ochre to bright yellow and I painted all day on a very large canvas – nothing but various hues of yellow!  At the end of the day I was completely well.  And although I know the very action of painting helped to pull me out of myself, I still believe the actual color was something my psyche needed. And as an added bonus, I ended up doing a series of these yellow paintings that I later sold.

Beauty is such a difficult thing to define of course, but people living in poor conditions with no color or light do suffer psychologically.  As an artist I am particularly sensitive to these things and living without them for too long leads to lethargy and depression.

There are so many kinds of depression – and so many myths about creativity and emotions.  As more research is being done on the brain we begin to understand more about the relationship of mental health and creativity.  In the meantime, it would be good to have more open discussions about these things.  So many creative young people are taking their lives or are so despondent and discouraged that they cannot reach their potential, learn to, or even want to, invest their creative gifts.

I know from experience (teaching for 20 years and running community arts programs) that even the most basic support and encouragement can change lives, even save lives.  We all need to be reminded that we are valuable.  Perhaps we as artists just need affirmation a little more often!


One last thing I considered when participating in the workshop about depression was the question of happiness.  Is our aim of not always being depressed to then become always happy? The desire of Posthumanism to eliminate suffering from the world is wrought for me with questions about balance and about the value of suffering.  Although fighting against the things that bring suffering to the world is the Christian response of compassion, we should not expect utopias in this life. 

All of the genuine people I know have gone through different kinds of suffering.  Though suffering itself is not always helpful or necessary, (like aching muscles are necessary when one is training for a race), our response to suffering can make us more human, more humane.  And there is a promise that having suffered and known God’s comfort, we are more able to understand and comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

But to think life is good only when we have no suffering is problematic.  How then does one deal with a verse such as: “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…”(Philippians 1:29).

It is not productive to be depressed, especially to be severely depressed and dysfunctional whether you consider yourself creative or not. However, our ultimate goal is not just to be ‘happy.’  There are deeper, more wonderful treasures to be found in the difficult places in life.  I hope the conversation about these issues continues and we can all find balance and health, no matter what stage of life we’re at, as artists and as creative human beings.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

- Mary Oliver

Betty Spackman
Betty Spackman is a multi media installation artist who has exhibited internationally and taught at various Universities in Canada and the USA. Her collaborative performance/installation projects have been shown at major venues throughout Europe. Spackman is the author of A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Piquant Editions, 2005) and a forthcoming mentoring manual and personal journal about her own struggles as an artist/Christian/human being and the cost of saying "yes" to the creative process.

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639
© Biola University, Inc. All Rights Reserved.