Is There A Connection Between Depression And Creativity?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you've read a biography about a famous artist or creator with depression, you might have wondered if there is a connection between depression and creativity. Across genres and generations, some people believe there's a link between mental health challenges and creative work. 

While this is a widespread belief, the connection between creativity, depression, and other mental health conditions can be complicated. It may be helpful to investigate the details and the current research on these topics to understand their significance further.

Feeling depressed and disconnected from your creative side?

Famous artists with mental illness: a brief overview

History showcases several famous artists who worked through mental health crises and other hardships. Some of the most renowned creators in this category include: 

  • Painter Vincent van Gogh, who lived with a mood disorder for much of his life 
  • Poet Sylvia Plath, who also lived with a severe mood disorder
  • Martin Luther King, who reportedly experienced periods of intense despair, followed by stints of high energy
  • Painter Edvard Munch, who experienced anxiety and hallucinations throughout his life

These creators lived when mental illnesses were more widely misunderstood, underdiagnosed, and stigmatized. However, conversations about creativity and mental health are more common and encouraged in the modern day in some societies, like the US. This trend has coincided with the development of art therapy, which uses art to support clients' mental health.

Are creative people more prone to depression?

Historically, there are several successful artists whose lives were shaped by mental illness, leading some to hypothesize that depression may have a link to creativity. 

However, the connection between depression and creativity is unclear. While you may have heard anecdotal reports of artists with mental illness, scientists are still trying to understand whether there is a verifiable link between creativity, depression, and other mental health conditions. 

Studies about creativity and depression

Based on a 40-year population study of mental illness, suicide, and creativity, individuals with creative professions were not more likely to experience depression and other psychiatric disorders, except for bipolar disorder. Creative people were 8% more likely than others to experience bipolar disorder.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

The study also found that authors were more likely to live with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Additionally, there was an association between creative professions and first-degree relatives of individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Psychologically healthy relatives of people with schizophrenia may score higher on creativity assessments and tend to have more creative jobs and hobbies, based on a 2010 study. However, mental illness is not "necessary" for creativity. Limited evidence suggests that mental illness enhances productivity, innovation, and other traits associated with artistic endeavors.

Engaging in daily creativity can reduce depressive symptoms and encourage more open-mindedness, curiosity, and personal growth. However, you can partake in creative activities and be creative regardless of your mental health status. Some people find that creativity is a helpful coping skill for their symptoms, but these skills do not arise from mental illness itself. 

Creativity, bipolar disorder, and schizotypal personality

While the connection between depression and creativity may not be clear, there is a defined link between creative expression and bipolar disorder, as well as schizotypal personality, which is distinct from schizophrenia.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which symptoms of depression and mania (or hypomania) alternate. There are three types of bipolar disorder, and all involve clear and often sudden changes in mood, energy, and activity levels

Unlike bipolar disorder, schizotypal personality traits can include unique perceptual experiences, magical beliefs, disorganization, and difficulty experiencing pleasure from social experiences, including those enjoyable to others.  

More research may be needed to understand the association between creativity, depression, and bipolar disorder. However, recent studies of schizotypal personalities may expand psychologists' understanding of creativity. For example, one study suggests that the brains of people with schizotypal traits are less able to filter out extraneous information, allowing them to "let in" more information and maximize their creative output.

How to boost creativity and mental health

Regardless of whether you identify as creative, there are studied mental health benefits of partaking in creative activities. Below are a few ways you can start. 

Engage in joyful movement

Creative expression isn't necessarily limited to visual art. Dance, yoga, and body movement can encourage self-expression, stress reduction, and physical fitness. If the movement feels awkward, try queueing a homemade playlist or playing your favorite song and moving to the beat. You can dance in secrecy if you don't feel comfortable doing it around others. You might also find an in-person or online class that offers more personalized instructions.

Tell stories

Storytelling can be a natural part of human communication and expression. Telling stories also has psychological benefits. Over time, retelling stories from your life can help you develop a sense of identity, community, and empathy, especially by learning from other people's stories.

Get musical

Whether you feel inclined to dance to music or sit back and listen, music can be a form of self-care. In addition to listening to music, singing can reduce depression, increase emotional expression, and improve social health and morale, especially in a group setting.

Craft, doodle, and paint

While you may not identify as an artist, try to challenge your inner art critic. You might doubt your artistic abilities, but regardless of the final product, anyone can create art.  

As a child, you may have taken art classes, participated in clubs, or crafted at home with family members. Perhaps you enjoyed more "traditional" 2D drawing or veered toward hands-on projects with clay, cardboard, and other sculptural elements. 

Take time to reconnect with your child-like creativity and explore whichever mediums feel most exciting and natural to you. You may find in-person classes in your neighborhood, school, or local library or follow video tutorials online. 

Spend time outside

If you're searching for inspiration, you might find it advantageous to head outside. Some artists find beauty and creative direction in nature and cityscapes. Bustling sidewalks, public parks, and quiet trails can offer sources of visual inspiration and opportunities to reflect and brainstorm on your next creative idea. 

Connect with people

Look around the room, in the elevator, or outside the window. Your next creative muse may be around you. Beyond the outdoors, some artists find inspiration and beauty in the people around them. An unexpected conversation with a loved one, acquaintance, or stranger may lead you toward creative exploration. You can share and generate new ideas with others – a precursor to innovation – while combating the negative effects of loneliness. 

Keep an expressive journal or idea log

Getting words on paper can feel intimidating if you haven't written for some time. However, writing doesn't need to be a fancy, high-brow activity. For some, a journal or "idea log" is an accessible, low-pressure way to jot down ideas and work through daily dilemmas. 

Any form of expressive writing can positively impact your mental health. In addition to recording creative ideas, writing can help you reduce stress, gain clarity over your experiences, and organize your thoughts and feelings. 

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Meet with a therapist

Whether you're trying to cope with the symptoms of depression or want to unlock your creative potential, a therapist may offer tools, compassion, and expertise. 

Although some people prefer in-person therapy, a growing number of people use online therapy to invest in their mental health while balancing active lifestyles and busy careers. Digital platforms like BetterHelp can connect individuals to a licensed therapist quickly, often within 48 hours of signing up. In addition, you may be able to choose between phone, video, or chat sessions, giving you more significant control over your treatment. 

Research suggests online therapy can be as effective as traditional, face-to-face options. A 2021 review of art therapy in the digital world assessed 12 studies of art therapy in digital contexts. While online art therapy requires certain adaptations of in-person sessions, the researchers' findings suggest that online therapy can help clients take a more active role in their treatment. Creating art at home may also increase clients' involvement in the therapeutic process and encourage them to engage more regularly in creative projects outside therapy sessions.

Takeaway

Depression and creativity are often linked in popular culture, based on historical accounts of famous artists. While the research doesn't necessarily support these anecdotal connections, psychologists continue to offer insights into the relationship between creativity, bipolar disorder, schizotypal personality, and other mental health conditions.

Regardless of your artistic history, you may utilize creative expression to enhance your mental health. A therapist can help you free your mind, deepen your self-understanding, and rediscover your creative flow. Consider contacting a provider online or in your area to get started.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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