Rethinking Creativity and Depression

Some five hundred years ago, mood disorders were considered to be based on an imbalance in four body “humors” or  fluids – yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.

Too much black bile was thought to cause ‘melancholy’ and ‘madness.’

[For more, see the Wikipedia page on Melancholia.]

In her article “Clinical Depression Then and Now,” Patricia Waldron, M.D. noted that art historian Erwin Panofsky referred to this famous artwork, Melencolia I (from 1514) as Albrecht Dürer‘s “spiritual self-portrait.”

She added, “We know, indeed, that Dürer thought of himself as melancholic and frequently experienced dejection and a sense of ‘powerlessness’ in the face of the staggering intellectual and technical demands he placed on himself.

“But Dürer’s energy and talent clearly turned periods of depression into an exploration of the inner self, which combined with his careful observation of the external world, resulted in works such as this splendid engraving.”

She also noted, “Because it involved cogitation and introspection, the state of melancholy became associated with the creative person. The philosopher Plato first postulated the notion that melancholy often followed ‘the Divine Frenzy’ of creativity.”

[Unfortunately, this fascinating article, which I found years ago, is apparently no longer on the Web, at least under that name.]

But many of us have also found that creative expression can help deal with depressive feelings.

“I equated creativity with artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, designers, fashion… I was none of that – until I sunk into depression.”

Writer Enoch Li says she never thought she had any creative talent, but in dealing with depression “rediscovered my creativity, which spurred my recovery.”

From her article: Depressed Creativity.

Questioning the mood – creativity link

A number of writers and psychologists are questioning the validity of the long history of associating depression with creativity.

In her post Depression, Creativity, and a New Pair of Shoes, Shelley H. Carson, Ph.D. writes, “After reading a newspaper article about some of the current research linking depressive disorders to creativity, an artist friend of mine commented, ‘Well, I guess now all I have to do is get depressed and my work will improve.’

Carson adds, “Since the time of Aristotle, creativity in the arts has been linked to melancholia…but depression itself doesn’t necessarily enhance creativity. Quite the opposite: most poets, artists, and composers have reported over the years that they are decidedly unable to work during episodes of severe depression. In fact, many have found their inability to create while depressed to be an impetus for ending it all.”

Carson is author of the book Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.

Genius and Insanity

In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. gives a quote attributed to Aristotle: “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.”

But is that really true?

Judith Schlesinger, PhD, author of the book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, says “The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”

She thinks “A careful look at the so-called ‘landmark’ studies in the field — the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison — reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions.”

From my post Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?

But there continue to be studies that raise questions about potential links between mood and creativity.

For example, “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity” is a research study from Harvard University that “examined how vulnerability to experiencing negative affect, measured with biological products, and intense negative emotions influenced artistic creativity… Although some evidence suggests that positive mood can enhance creativity… many other studies have demonstrated that negative affect can have a facilitative effect on creativity.”

[Thanks to a member of a Facebook group: The Brain Cafe for pointing out this study. This group often reports on fascinating literature and research related to neuroscience, gifted adults and creativity.]

Rethinking Depression

Susan Jennifer Polese, a counselor in training, a personal coach and a freelance writer, notes in her article A Catalyst to Change – Rethinking Depression, “perhaps we can, for the moment, rethink depression much the way William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy does.

“Glasser maintains that we need to take responsibility for what we are and what we are experiencing. He states that being depressed, being anxious, even having a headache are expressions which avoid our responsibility in behaving in these ways.

“We choose to be depressed and hence, when depressed, we are depressing. We choose to have a headache, and hence, when we have a headache, we are headaching. He uses verbs to describe these conditions because we are choosing to experience this. This viewpoint does not support treatment with a medication.”

[Related book: Take Charge of your Life: How to Get What you Need With Choice Theory Psychology, by William Glasser, MD.]

Polese continues, “Depression through the lens of Dr. Martin Seligman, the developer of positive psychology, changes the focus from what’s wrong to what’s strong. This ideology views the fight against depression as a journey through which the client accesses creativity and strength to endure and overcome deep unhappiness. Through these actions meaning can be found.”

[Related book: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, by Martin E. P. Seligman.]

She notes that creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD has written a book ‘Rethinking Depression’ that explores this topic: “Like Glasser, Maisel takes a nonclinical look at depression and goes as far to declare that there really is no disorder of ‘depression’ and that unhappiness, chronic or otherwise, need not be looked at from a medical model of pathology.”

Creativity and emotion

In his series of podcasts Overcoming Obstacles to Creating, Maisel has an episode titled “Minding Your Emotions” in which he says, “It is necessary that a creative person have and express her emotions, but that is a very different thing from being led around by the nose by her fear, anger, envy, or sadness. What can we do to break free of the grip of our emotions?”

Pathologizing everyday life

In his post Rethinking Depression, Dr. Maisel writes, “There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a ‘mental disease’ or a ‘mental disorder’ we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control.

“The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges ‘disorders’ but we have few good reasons to collude with them.”

He thinks this sort of labeling can be very dangerous: “As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our ‘medicalize everything’ culture.”

Referring specifically to depression, he thinks the term “has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a ‘depression expert.’

“We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor – even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids.”

He adds, “That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness ‘depression’ and to look for ‘help with our depression.’ People have been trained to call their sadness ‘depression’ by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Eric Maisel talks about Rethinking Depression:

Introduced by Neseret Bemient, host of The Mental Health Telesummit, creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel, PhD talks about “official” attitudes of many health professionals about some forms of human experience, such as depression, that get labeled as mental illness.

Mental Health Telesummit program: “Rethinking Depression with Eric Maisel” – You’ll learn.. “Why human sadness is far too often mislabeled as “depression” and what we can do about it ~ How to recognize the role of unhappiness in your life ~ How to embrace responsibility for creating meaning in your life.”

Get his full-length [almost an hour] interview as part of the package of recordings by 12 presenters.

Eric Maisel’s related book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.

Psychotherapist and author Jed Diamond notes in his review: “I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Eric Maisel’s new book. I’ve been a psychotherapist for more than 40 years and treat depression every day. I’ve long come to see that our old way of looking at ‘mental illness’ is totally inadequate. We put more and more people on drugs while ignoring the underlying problems that feed our feelings of despair and hopelessness.”

Bipolar and Bipolar Advantage


In his Psych Central article At The Mercy Of Our Moods, Tom Wootton notes that “At the mercy of her moods” was “a very 19th century expression” but is still an undercurrent in both popular and professional attitudes about mental health.

He declares that based on his experience, “and that of many others…intensity has much less to do with it than understanding and training. When we seek understanding instead of just trying to make it go away, we find that we can separate the experience of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual intensity from our reactions.”

From my Creative Mind post Creativity Higher with Bipolar?

Tom Wootton is author of the books:

The Depression Advantage

Bipolar In Order: Looking At Depression, Mania, Hallucination, and Delusion From The Other Side

Wootton is also President of Bipolar Advantage: Outcome-Based Education for Bipolar and Depression.

Maureen Duffy Ph.D., Professor and Chairperson, The Counseling Program, Barry University says, “Tom is doing something no one else is really doing. He is turning a serious mental illness on its head and suggesting that by accepting rather than fighting the disorder, people with bipolar can identify and access their strengths and lead lives that are not only satisfying but productive beyond their wildest imaginings.”

John D. Gartner, PhD (author of The Hypomanic Edge) says, “Bipolar Advantage offers a comprehensive program for bipolars to find their own type of balance — to be themselves and in control at the same time.”

Follow the link to Bipolar Advantage to get started with the program for free.

At the top of this post, I referred to my “depressive feelings” – for many years of my life, I struggled with depression and dysthymia, and have experienced benefit from psychotherapy and the use of antidepressants (years ago).

I still daily use the herbal supplements SAM-e (S-Adenosyl Methionine, derived from the amino acid methionine), and St. John’s Wort for mood control. (A good source of information and of research-grade tablets is HBC Protocols.)

Considering how many artists (such as Jackson Pollock, played in a movie by Ed Harris – photo) have reportedly suffered from depression and anxiety, and thinking about the kinds of perspectives mentioned in this post, it seems to me it is vital to deal with our emotional and mental health challenges, to better access our creativity.

But it is also vital to consider how we label and respond to those challenges.

For more perspectives, see these articles:

Giftedness, sensitivity and psychiatric drugs: why do we take them and why do we quit? by Cat Robson.

Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist, by Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D.

Also see Mental Health posts.

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