How Are You Doing? Let’s Talk: Depression & Creativity
Let’s talk. No tech questions, no debates, no critique. Let’s talk about you. How are you? No really, how are you?
When’s the last time someone really asked you that? When’s the last time you answered truthfully?
Post-production is hard. Like, really hard. It’s the kind of industry where it’s rare to have a routine and normal to work overtime. It requires you to constantly stay updated on software and skills and outlooks. Constantly look for work. Call people. Email people. Check Twitter. Call more people. And oh yeah, actually edit things. And oh, YEAH..have a personal life. Maybe. It’s demanding. It’s often thankless. You spend a lot more time being told you’re wrong than right at some stages of a project. You can’t leave your work at the office each day.
We had a good discussion about parenthood in post production last year, and more recently about being a good human to others. But what about you? You’re the one that has to worry about all this. You have to, in no particular order: be a really good editor, pay your rent on time, deal with critical clients, juggle your personal life without dissing your friends to the point of abandonment, and accept more rejections than compliments. It’s a rough industry. Your creative work is a direct reflection of yourself. The highs are really high, the lows are really low, and the drastic changes in work-related mood may mask deeper problems. And especially at this time of the year, when it’s dark and dreary (at least in my hemisphere), it’s something worth talking about.
A number of studies have pieced together some kind of relationship between mental illness and creativity. For example, a recent Swedish study showed that people in creative fields were 8% more likely to have bipolar disorder. Writers in particular were 50% more likely to commit suicide. You can probably name a number of famously ill artists, many of which took their own lives: Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway…a seemingly endless list. Whether there is a quantifiable link between creativity and mental illness or not, you can see why a creative industry can become associated with mental illnesses. Creative individuals are more likely to be self-introspective more often, are often extremely detail oriented, and spend a lot of time feeling closely associated with self-expression — a strong desire to create, and often a strong desire to be better, sometimes to the point of self-destruction. (Not that other professions don’t have their own draws and challenges that attract, nurture and tear down individuals prone to mental illnesses, but we’re artists here so I’m talking about artists.)
I think everyone reading this knows someone who suffers from some degree of mental illness. Maybe you suffer from it yourself, or suspect you might. Yet there remains in our world a tremendous stigma toward mental illnesses of all kinds. People don’t talk to each other about this. Our society’s support system for the mentally ill is embarrassing. Healthcare is a joke even in the face of the Affordable Care Act. From the highest regarded artists in history to the overwhelmed recent college graduate, mental health is one challenge we all have in common. So why are we hiding it, and why don’t we give each other the benefit of the doubt?
Among the most common mental illness in the United States is depression — something like one in ten adults report occasional to major depression. And even then, it’s vastly underreported because many people still associate depression and anxiety with weakness. “I’ll deal with this myself, I’m just being dumb.” “She sleeps until noon because she’s lazy.” “He doesn’t want to go out again, he must be stuck up.” Rarely is the first response to abnormal behavior to simply ask a person how they’re doing. On the other side, for the person experiencing the depression: “I’m too strong-willed to be depressed.” “I can overcome this by myself.” “I must be ungrateful for what I have.”
Some people are capable of crawling back out from behind occasional bouts of depression. Others only sink further, not seeking help out of pride, fear or anger. A recent graduate might say “if only I could get a job, then I’ll feel better.” A seasoned camera operator thinks “once this gig is done, I know I’ll be able to relax.” But then it happens – the job comes up, the gig ends – and nothing changes inside.
I asked a friend in the industry with severe depression and anxiety to describe how it felt, how he differentiated it from loss or sadness or stress. He told me he felt like the main difference for him was his inability to ever experience joy, for months on end. It doesn’t get better. It feels stupid, especially in the face of an otherwise decent lifestyle, to not be able to function correctly with simple tasks. Keeping up with household tasks or finding inspiration for your work becomes harder, and the difficulty brings anxiety. Medications help to level the feeling and make it less acute, but they don’t generate positive feelings. People have tried to tell him “look at what you have, you’ve got what you need, things could be much worse, why are you such a downer.” He could win the lottery and buy a zoo and he’d still feel exactly the same way because that’s what his brain and mind have come up with for him. His perception of the world (and himself) is skewed by this as he struggles to accept his differences not as deficiencies and find a way to function with them – a lifelong struggle often lost.
But if you saw his work, you’d never guess he wasn’t at the top of his game.
Mental illness is pretty damn common, especially in our industry. People are good at hiding it, and our professions make it easy to mask. We’re in an industry where all-nighters are normal, obsession can be called passion, and the momentum just keeps going forward so fast nobody can stop for a minute to realize that something real is actually wrong.
But these illnesses are like any other disease. They need time and support to heal, possibly under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Some of them need medication to manage, and that’s as okay as taking medication to manage high blood pressure or diabetes. There is no shame in asking for help, just as there’s no shame in going to a general practitioner with migraines or a podiatrist with foot pain. If you feel you need help, try to ask someone. If you know someone that needs help, offer to help. Or simply offer friendship and support without judgement. For some people, that can make all the difference in taking whatever next steps need to be taken.
Mental illness is often mistaken as a personality flaw, especially by the very person suffering from it: moody, short-tempered, weak, lazy. And that makes sense in our profession, where we’re harder on ourselves than any of the critique we face every day. Just hear this: just like it’s okay to post a question in a COW forum or tweet soliciting opinions, it’s okay to ask for help in managing your mental wellness, and it’s okay to encourage a culture where we can all be a little more open about these things.
So hey, how are you?