Awareness months are often silly, overused, and more annoying than helpful. There is an awareness month for everything, and people often fall into the trap of displaying colored ribbons but doing little else. But if we bypass all the ribbons and the memes and the merchandise with glib sayings, awareness months can be useful for their original intention, bringing awareness to an issue that needs to be addressed throughout the year. They can also help raise funds to cope with the issue.
In October, awareness is raised for an issue that impacts the lives of many artists, depression. We all know the stereotype of an artist as someone who is constantly brooding, irritable, and prone to locking themselves away to write, paint, practice their instrument, or sculpt in isolation. In some cases, the person experiences periods of mania, in which their creativity flourishes, but they can do little else.
There is some grain of truth to this stereotype. In 2017, the journal “Perspective on Psychological Science” published a study called “Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis.” This study, and others, have found a strong correlation between creativity and mood disorders like major depression and bipolar disorder. But correlation does not imply causation. While mood disorders like depression appear to be more common among artists, your mood disorder did not give you your creative ability, and your creative ability did not cause your mood disorder.
Artists are more prone to depression and related disorders because working in the arts is so often low paying, competitive, and costly to maintain. You have to deal with constant criticism, steady rejection, and a never-ending search for paying work much more often than those in other fields. And that’s on top of the issues you see in the world and feel called to address in your work.
The signs and symptoms of depression are going to be everywhere this month. But there are a few things about it we may know, but tend to disregard or forget.
Telling someone to “snap out of” or “get over” depression does not have the hoped-for effect, and is more likely to worsen their outlook.
You may think you’re going to shock the person into approaching everything with a skip in their step and a smile on their face when you tell them to just get over or snap out of things. And they just might start skipping and smiling…but it will only be around you, to avoid having to listen to you make them feel worse again. Their condition will not improve.
When you tell someone to “snap out of it” or “get over it” or “just quit worrying about it,” what you’re really telling them is that whatever is going on with them makes things more difficult for you, and you don’t think you should have to deal with it. You just became one more voice telling a person who is already suffering that people do not in fact care about them.
And be honest. That is exactly what you meant. If you really thought commanding someone’s mood disorder away would fix everything, you’d be hiring yourself out as a 100% guaranteed instant cure for all mood disorders. And you’d get a lot of clients. Depression is far from enjoyable. If all you can say to a depressed person is “Just stop being so depressed,” it’s better to say nothing at all.
Your depression or related mood disorder is not a license to mistreat others
Irritability is a common symptom of depression, as is fatigue, and a loss of hope. This may be why you want to make plans with a friend, simply fail to show up, and then tell them off when they become upset with you. But a reason why you want to do something is not the same thing as a license to do it. You are just as responsible for managing your own mental health issues as you are for managing your own physical health issues.
If you’re diabetic, it’s your responsibility to read the label on the bread and make sure it has no more than three or five grams of sugar per serving, not the department manager’s responsibility to throw all the bread with six or more grams of sugar away. As someone with poor depth perception, it’s my responsibility to find transportation other than my own driving, not other drivers’ responsibility to swerve out of my way when I move into their lane because my eyes can’t follow the lines on the road. Similarly, if your depression leaves you irritable and fatigued, it is your responsibility to manage those symptoms, which may include getting professional help.
Having a mood disorder, or being treated for one, is not an excuse to avoid practicing your art.
Given the prevalence of depression and bipolar disorder among artists, and the increasing acceptance of medication to treat these disorders, there are undoubtedly a lot of artists out there with mood disorders, and many of them must be getting treated for them. If having a mood disorder in any way prevented the practice of the arts, there would be a lot less art in the world.
Just as with your other behavior, it is your responsibility to manage your symptoms and your work. If you feel like you can’t make that gig you spent months promoting because you’re feeling fatigued, it means you need to find a healthy way to manage fatigue. If you feel like ideas come to you more slowly on your new medication, find some ways to generate ideas.
Your art is not a good reason to avoid treating your depression or related disorder
In the study referenced above, the researchers’ findings were clear that art does not stem from depression or other mood disorders. An artist can certainly use their depression, bipolar disorder, or any other health issue they may grapple with, in their art. But the disorder itself is not the reason you are an artist.
Perhaps you wouldn’t have become an artist if you hadn’t had to face depression. That still doesn’t mean having depression is the source of your artistic ability. People are led to the arts during therapy for physical illnesses and injuries too, and breaking your arm or being diagnosed with cancer certainly doesn’t cause artistic ability to appear.
Anyone who notices symptoms of depression or a related mood disorder, like anxiety or bipolar disorder, in themselves is urged to reach out to a licensed professional for help. These are the people who can help you both manage the symptoms and work around any side effects that may impact your work, in and out of the arts.
It is important to take depression symptoms as seriously as you would take the symptoms of any other illness, in yourself and others
Just in case someone hasn’t come across a review of the most common symptoms of depression recently, they are: prolonged feelings of sadness, lasting two weeks or more, experiencing guilt, often out of proportion to the situation, a lack of hope, fatigue, marked increase or decrease in sleeping, similar noticeable increase or decrease in eating, body aches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and low motivation. Movement may feel difficult, as though the person’s limbs were being weighed down. Depression may cause feelings of worthlessness and a general low opinion of oneself. These may extend to feelings that one would be better off dead, even thoughts of suicide.
Those who have bipolar disorder will experience periods of these symptoms, alternating with periods of unusually elevated mood, excessive energy, intense irritability or even anger, difficulty with impulse control, and oddly fast speech or movement. They may feel invincible, or have unusually favorable opinions of themselves.
Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms, or any other symptoms of depression or a related mood disorder is urged to reach out to a licensed mental health practitioner in their area as soon as possible. If you see these symptoms in a loved one, encourage them to get help. Seek immediate emergency care if you or someone in your life has or expresses the urge to harm themselves or anyone else.
Author’s note: This article, and all articles about mental health and mental illness on Artist Cafe Utica, are written by one of your fellow artists. I work in creative writing, content writing for artists, and adult education. Before I began this career, I was a reporter. My research comes from my years as a reporter, from research I have done for my art, or from research I do for the purpose of writing the articles you read. I am not a licensed mental health practitioner or any other type of healthcare professional, and these articles are not healthcare or professional health advice. If you have or believe you may have a health problem, including mental health, please contact a local licensed mental health counselor or speak to a doctor.
by Jess Szabo originally published on Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com