A new study shows that teens who enroll in art, music or drama lessons are more likely to suffer from depression.
“Previous studies have shown higher incidence of psychological disorders — depression, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders among adult artists,” said Laura Young, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Boston College’s psychology department.
“When you hear that more novelists suffer from depression, for example, or more painters are bipolar, that’s not just anecdotal. Studies have supported this. But this is the first study of this size to review these links among teens, and in America.”
The researchers focused on “depressive symptoms,” asking teens if they experience sadness, poor appetite, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood or lack of energy.
The study involved teens ages 15 and 16, Young said, because “at this age, they’re more likely to be in the arts willingly than there just because their parents made them go.”
Girls are more likely to develop depression and to get involved in the arts, however, the findings show that the arts-depression link affects both genders, said Young.
The study participants were equally divided between male and female. Among the teens, 54 percent were white or Asian, 27 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic. But the study does not address race differences.
In contrast, teens involved exclusively in sports are less likely to report depression. However teens in sports score significantly higher with depression if they are also involved in the arts.
“This suggests that arts participation, not lack of sports participation, is associated with depression,” Young said.
Young said she believes peer-group expectations especially affect athletes.
“Sports encourages teens to be stoic, so teens in sports may be less likely to report depressive symptoms,” Young said. “You’re part of a team and should not be vulnerable; that’s what society teaches us.”
Young points out that there is an upside to the mental illness/arts link.
“Some of the ‘symptoms’ such as hyper-awareness help some teens focus on the arts and tune out distractions,” she said. “For introverted teens, the visual arts or writing can be a safe place to reflect or be therapeutic. For the extroverted, extra energy is beneficial if they get involved in drama.”
Young said studies like these should cause school districts to think twice about cutting the arts to balance budgets.
“For some kids, the arts are their chance to be heard or may be their chance to deal with their anger,” she said. “The arts should be part of a total education.”
“We don’t have all the answers, but we do see why some teens are compelled to the arts,” she said. “Some emotions, like wonder, awe and inspiration, are especially hard to measure but should be considered. If they are more pronounced among people with mental illnesses, this can be a good thing.”