Depression and writing is a topic I’ve been sort-of simultaneously hesitant and motivated to discuss. My friends and family are affected by depression, and its something I come into contact with through work more often than not. And I think the topic is something most if not all people have some familiarity with one way or another.
It’s also a common thread and discussion point online, people asking about the relationships between writing and depression (and anxiety) how to write on despite the black dog, questioning whether anti-depressants will curb creativity and so on. The hesitation I mentioned above stems from wanting to discuss, but also being a little uncertain about whether I can address anything on such a complex and nuanced topic.
Well, here we go. Please note that nothing here is intended as professional advice, it is intended to be legitimate and helpful, however a blog post simply cannot take the place of individualized 1:1 professional help. (accountability statement done)
The Tortured Artist Stereotype
Writing and depression, and other issues have long been associated. Many professional writers past and present have had struggles, often to the point of substance abuse and addiction. Yet how exactly these issues fit together is a cause for some controversy. For every Stephen King (long history of alcoholism) there’s a Kathy Riechs (generally successful academic and professional and no substance abuse as far as we know).
Personally I think there is a double-edge to writing for anyone struggling with depression. Generally speaking simply writing as a pastime, hobby and/or form of expression is something that is very good for a person – especially for those of us without any other outlet, or perhaps who experience invalidation from those around us and need a blank page.
BUT, and it’s a big but. There is a risk with the idea of the tortured artist stereotype. Self-acceptance is a very good thing. We’re all only human with all our faults and foibles and there is little point to beating ourselves up constantly for them. However there is also the potential of going too far and becoming self-excusing. What’s the difference? Think of acceptance as being the acknowledgement of past mistakes – say like forgiving oneself for having a relapse after past drinking problems – whereas self-excusing is justifying or making an excuse for continuing to commit mistakes (oh I’ve had a hard day I’ll just have another drink).
The point I’m trying to make is that writing can be a great form of expression and has been shown to help with depression, however there is a risk of clinging to the idea of being a tortured writer – and perception, especially self perception is significant for emotional health.
Which brings me to the next point:
Wellness needs to be a goal
One of the common threads for those with depression, writers or not, is that people have put aside their own wellness as a priority. Whether its through a belief that one simply cannot be well, not believing one is worth the effort, or simply everything else has been put first, often one of the main “treatments” (scare-quotes used because treatments sounds scary but really isn’t) is simply to convince a person to put their own wellness on top again. As a side note its almost funny if it wasn’t a serious topic, how many people that suffer depression who have other people as a huge priority, people who will honestly throw themselves out of bed first thing in the morning to help a friend out, yet won’t eat because they just don’t see the point of caring for themselves. (To which I always say you can’t take care of others if you don’t care for yourself).
Back to the topic at hand however, writing can overwhelm a person’s priorities. I think particularly when people are looking to do more than ‘just write.’ I confess I’m often alarmed when I hear about people struggling with depression and anxiety who are keen to get traditionally published, not because I’m being judgmental but in my opinion writing for publication is incredibly stressful, and often lonely – not exactly the best recommendation for those with depression and anxiety!
So you can see how there is another double-edge here: writing is good for the soul, but aiming to succeed professionally requires a lot of solitary and stressful work. I think that anyone embarking on a journey towards traditional or self-publishing needs to put their own wellness as a top priority, as even the most resilient brain can be pummeled to mush by the pressures of publishing.
What about creativity?
To be perfectly honest I don’t know the answer to whether medication like anti-depressants, or seeking treatment for depression will curb creativity. Personally I think there is no real trade-off here. Yes sometimes being in a tough space creates a strong motivation to create, however I find it hard to believe that depression could be an asset beyond that initial angst, successful writing after all requires perseverance and a thick skin. It also maybe true that seeking wellness may take time away from writing, but again I would argue that it’s worth it.
In summary I think that writing has some dangerous allure for those of us struggling with depression – it’s a typically solitary task that the compelling idea of a ‘tortured artist’ could help drag a person into more isolation – equally however writing has been shown to be good for a mind in need of an expressive outlet.
Finally I think if a person’s goal is to achieve some outside success with writing, the rigors are very real and one needs to keep well first and foremost to endure the challenge.
That’s my (tricky and controversial) post for today – I hope that it reads with the sensitivity I wanted to present. I was somewhat prompted by a recent famous (that I have never heard of until then) kickboxer who declared on Twitter that depression doesn’t exist – and felt the topic was timely.
As always it would be great to hear you thoughts, experiences, and insights. Take care of yourselves people 🙂 🙂 🙂