Creativity and Depression
That excerpt from one of her sonnets expresses how much poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) probably knew of depression.
Marie Osmond has described her experiences suffering from postpartum depression in her book Behind the Smile: “I’m collapsed in a pile of shoes on my closet floor. I have no memory of what it feels like to be happy. I sit with my knees pulled up to my chest. It’s not that I want to be still. I am numb.”
That kind of numbness, that sense of endless hopelessness and erosion of spiritual vitality are some of the reasons depression can have such a devastating impact on creative inspiration and expression.
There are reports that as many as a quarter of American women have a history of depression. According to an article on the Allhealth.com website, “The risk of depression among teen girls is high, and this risk lasts into early adulthood.” A study of young women living in Los Angeles found that almost half had at least one episode of major depression within five years after high school graduation.
Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a person with bipolar disorder or manic depression, notes in her book Touched with Fire that the majority of people suffering from mood disorder “do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings.”
She writes, “To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.’ But, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people. Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression.”
According to the website Famous (Living) People Who Have Experienced Depression, women in the arts who have declared publicly they have had some form of the mood disorder include Sheryl Crow; Ellen DeGeneres; Patty Duke; Connie Francis; Mariette Hartley; Margot Kidder; Kristy McNichol; Kate Millett; Sinead O’Connor; Marie Osmond; Dolly Parton; Bonnie Raitt; Jeannie C. Riley; Roseanne and Lili Taylor.
Development of a mood disorder may start early in life. C. Diane Ealy, Ph.D., in her book The Woman’s Book of Creativity writes: “Many studies have shown us that a young girl’s ideas are frequently discounted by her peers and teachers. In response, she stifles her creativity. The adult who isn’t expressing her creativity is falling short of her potential.
“Repressed creativity can express itself in unhealthy relationships, overwhelming stress, severe neurotic or even psychotic behavior, and addictive behaviors such as alcoholism. But perhaps the most insidious and common manifestation of repressed creativity in women is depression.”
Marie Osmond also wrote about another aspect, the impact on her esteem and sense of self: “My mother has always been my role model, and I believe my survival in the entertainment business is in large part due to my desire to be a strong woman like my mother. She is my hero.
“I can vividly recall what it felt like to be alone and in a crumpled heap on the closet floor. I remember thinking that my mother would never have fallen apart like that. I was sure no one would understand what I was going through. I could have managed the pain. It was the shame that was destroying me.”
Fortunately, depression can be effectively managed for most people, through medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or other approaches. According to an issue of the Blues Buster newsletter, formerly published by Psychology Today magazine, research studies have shown significant reductions in depression through engaging in aerobic activities such as walking and jogging, and resistance exercise, such as weight training.
In a press release, Rosie O’Donnell has commented about her own experience, “the dark cloud that arrived in my childhood did not leave until I was 37 and started taking medication. My depression slowly faded away. I have been on medication for two years now. I may be on it forever. The pills did not make me a zombie, they did not change the reality of my past, they did not take away my curiosity.
“What the pills did was to allow me to deal with all of those issues when and where I wish. My life is once again manageable. The gray has gone away, I am living in bright Technicolor.”
In her book “Life After Manic Depression” actress Patty Duke also affirms that getting the right diagnosis and treatment allowed recovery of her life and spirit: “The rate of growth in my mind and my heart in the last seven years is beyond measuring.”
Douglas Eby writes about psychological and social aspects of creative expression and personal achievement. His site is Talent Development Resources: http://talentdevelop.com.
Psych Central. (2018). Creativity and Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/creativity-and-depression/