Depression and Creativity

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

There is a strong association between disorders of mood and creativity. Some of our greatest writers, poets, thinkers, actors and artists are afflicted with depression or some other form of mood or anxiety disorder. It's a curious paradox that the emotionally draining experience of depression, along with the guilt, remorse, sadness and blackness that accompanies it can be associated with creativity.

The creative act is something special. Whether its a simple variation on a recipe that produces and lighter or tastier cake, or as complex as cracking a genetic code or inventing something new, the capacity to think in a different and original way or to solve problems, helps to define creativity. Understanding the link between depression and creativity isn't easy as it may be as much a cause of depression as its savior.

Art, whether it be sculpture, acting, writing or some other form, taps into emotions. In fact it's fair to say that emotions are central to art in that they represent the driving force for the creative act. So are the emotional stirrings so vital for artistic expression also the catalyst for melancholy? Artists frequently require solitude, intense thought and concentration. In some contexts the forces that compel artistic expression could well be the same that lead to depression.

It's important to appreciate that most people with a mood disorder are not touched by artistic genius. The psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison points out that it is not the disease that promotes artistic talent, but for those who already have talent, it appears it can enhance or contribute in some fashion. There are additional views, in an article by Douglas Eby, he points to the belief expressed by Diane Ely, Ph.D., that repressed creativity expresses itself in "unhealthy relationships, overwhelming stress, severe neurotic or even psychotic behavior, and addictive behaviors such as alcoholism." Ely extends her assertions by saying, "the most insidious and common manifestation of repressed creativity in women is depression."

To me, one of the interesting issues in this debate is the way art is also frequently regarded and used as therapy. Writing, for example, is well documented as a means of therapeutic expression. Art therapy is based on the belief that the creative process helps to resolve conflicts, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness and achieve insight.

It's never been easy to measure depression. The fact that depression is such a subjective state means the best we can do is make observations and ask people to explain or somehow rate their own level of discomfort. A consistent observation in the expression of depression through art is the way, in every culture or language, that depression is portrayed as darkness. What's equally interesting is the knowledge that the more depressed people become the lower their retinal response becomes. In other words depressed people have greater difficulty detecting black and white contrast differences (Bubl et al, 2010). If these results are shown to be consistent it could perhaps lead to a way of objectively measuring the currently subjective state of depression?

Many people find music a comfort when they are depressed, but as anyone who has ever watched a sad movie knows, music can also evoke strong emotions. If mood is low should we select cheery music, or do we find ourselves selecting music that reflects our mood? In so doing, does this help or hinder mood? Music easily has the potential to influence mood. This is a well known and established principle behind music therapy of course, used successfully with people across a range of behavioral and emotional issues.

Do you put pen to paper or oil to canvas? Perhaps you sing, write poetry, make models? Does it help your mood and if so how? We'd love to hear your experiences in relation to your creativity and your mood.


Eby, D. Psych Central - Creativity and Depression. Retrieved July 18, 2011, from Elsevier (2010, July 21). Why does everything look gray when you feel blue? ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 18, 2011, from

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of