Designed by Luis Prado for the Noun Project

Designed by Luis Prado for the Noun Project

Creatives and mental issues, like anxiety or depression, have been famously paired together for centuries. Gila Lyons explains in The Millions:

[Sigmund] Freud posited that artistic creativity is a product of neurosis; Marcel Proust claimed that, “everything great in the world is created by neurotics;” and Seneca quoted Aristotle as having said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.”

It can be an (often terrifying) catch-22; do you need to be a little “mad” in order to be a great artist, and if you lose that madness, do you lose any of your creative spark? It’s an issue Lyons herself was dealing with when she started suffering intense anxiety and depression that was crippling her life, but (in the final year of her MFA) she was also terrified of losing her artistic edge.

I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. 

In the end, Lyons decided to take the medication and get help. While she admits to a muting of the overwhelming need to create or sensory overloads, she also raises the question of if creating from a place like that is really any better or more productive than from a place of well-being.

I wouldn’t trade the happiness, the sense of balance, the self-reliance, or the improved relationships I’ve gained from medicine for writing. And perhaps I don’t have to decide between mental health and creativity. It seems that, whether mad or not, people are driven to create in order to understand something about themselves, the world, or their experiences and perceptions… It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place…

Read the rest of the article here.

Note: Depression is not something to be taken lightly. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

  • acarback

    Depression is a bigger threat to creativity to antidepressants. You can’t create anything creative if you slide to far.

    If you are struggling with depression, please seek help. If you are suicidal, please call 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

    • Alan Kolc

      It’s not as simple as measuring your artistic output. When you’re depressed it’s very hard to take your work out into the world and to interact with people who may be interested in it. My history with antidepressants has had its ups and downs, but I’ve certainly had better quantity and quality of work while medicated. A better option is to combine meds with Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy. The therapy offers a way to modify the thinking and behaviors that feed the depression.

  • VitaminCM

    When people think that you need (pain, poverty, fear, etc.) to be creative, they’re just people who are either:
    A. Just not creative and making excuses up
    B. Not thinking straight because of their (pain, poverty, fear, etc.)
    First of all, everyone will suffer – EVERYONE whether they’re healthy or other.
    If you have the chops, you’ll create in spite of it. If you don’t, you just don’t.
    So let’s assume that you DO have some creativity. Would you rather try to make your masterpiece while feeling: Calm or frantic – confident or gripped with fear – lucid or confused? Exactly.
    Ever try to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when you can’t even get out of bed?
    Get yourself healthy and get to work!

    • Steeph

      I may say I agree with you. I passed through it and I know isn’t good. Maybe we can, for some “lucky”, have some good results, but if your head or thoughts are filled with feelings, will be not too easy to work in some projects. It can be good, if you working only in personal projects, i think. In the time i wasn’t freelancer, just a little kid in this creative world and my works were only personal, i had great results with my feelings. Keep the feelings, emotions and thoughts balanced for work with the brain.

  • dave W

    Anti-depressants are the “soma” from Brave New World.

    “People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get…And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”

    • An Onymous

      No, they are medications that treat a debilitating illness.

  • cyranodesydney

    It’s a delicate balancing-act. True, depression will ultimately crush all creativity.
    But masking it pharmaceutically will sedate creativity too. The unfortunate reality is that much creativity springs from pain in all its forms, and creativity is the temporary escape from that pain which results.

    The sharpest, funniest comedians are all deeply troubled people. Happy, contented good looking ones are never funny. Same other creative fields – take a closer look at that good looking creative success story and you’ll find it emanated from personal charisma more than from creative excellence.
    Keep at least one thorn in your side to remind you that you are alive.

    • charalex

      Absolutely right. No feelings = no creativity.

    • An Onymous

      An all too common misperception is that anti-depressants do nothing but provide temporary numbing or escape from personal problems, which are left unresolved. In reality, medications can regulate the chemical imbalances caused by illness in the brain, and when effective, an individual’s ability to function and handle life issues is vastly improved.

      • Chelsea Dennis

        In reality, many antidepressants keep serotonin in the synapse and your neurotransmitters become dependent on the drug keeping serotonin there and your body drastically reduces serotonin production. So, for the first year or so they will make you feel great, but over time they can damage neurotransmitters. You might want to get updated.

      • An Onymous

        Please point to evidence supporting your generalisations!


    I have suffered from depression and anxiety my entire adult life. In college I tried Zoloft and experienced the muted creativity along with dulled senses and side effects. I stopped taking it in order to feel like myself and not a zombie. (And I was going to an ART school!)

    A few years later, I went through a series of extremely traumatizing events that made the depression and anxiety absolutely unbearable, due to a diagnosis of PTSD. After doing my own research and talking to family members about what worked for them, I’m now on Wellbutrin. Combined with therapy, it has worked wonders for me, and doesn’t have the awful side effects of the other types of antidepressants. And BONUS, it helped me quit smoking cigarettes. I’m back to my creative process and living a healthy lifestyle. Thanks to self realization and amazing therapy and treatment, I’m no longer in a cloud of despair. Hope that helps anyone who is suffering from the crippling disease of depression. There’s no shame in seeking help.

  • The One You Feed

    Like anything in life there is no one size fits all formula for this. I think it’s clear that certain anti-depressants mute the range of feeling as well as having other side effects.

    It’s also clear that depression is crippling. A 15 year old girl at my son’s school killed herself last week. She’s not creating anything except pain for a lot of people.

    Depression in a clinical sense does not drive creativity. It is a deadening experience.

    • An Onymous

      “…anti-depressants mute the range of feeling…”

      Yes, the overtones of despair are diminished.

  • qusdis

    I once read a newspaper article that said as far as depression goes, there’s evidence that great artists eventually used their depression experiences but later, not while they were in them. Being depressed cut down their productivity drastically. Not sure if later studies supported that, but it would make sense if depression follows that pattern.

    I don’t think it said anything about other mental disorders such as insanity, etc.

  • Calmer now

    I have suffered from depression and anxiety most of my life and to ease the pain I did express my tormented feelings through my work (painting and poetry). I have been on anti-depressants on and off for the past 15 years and currently taking medication after suffering more anxiety attacks. My conclusion is that I prefer calmness to panic and dark thoughts and I’m still creating through my writing. The results might not be as dramatic but I certainly feel a whole lot better.

  • Scott McLay Forbes

    I’m mad, having both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Having bipolar disorder means being depressed sometimes. I take antidepressants, along with antipsychotic drugs, as well as anti-anxiety medication. None of these drugs cause me any loss of creativity. Of course, I do suffer from mania, which is from the same brain region as creativity. In other words, I’m naturally very creative, and I take the medication every day for depression, and there is no difference in creativity. I can make art much easier without suffering from depression, so in a way anti-depressants can help me a great deal. I love life just the same, it’s only for certain neurotransmitters. A mental illness doesn’t make me productive, however. Where my creativity suffers is that I’m shy and don’t want to compete. I’m not very aggressive or assertive about competition at work. I want to recommend therapy to any of you who are suicidally depressed. It is necessary, in order to resolve issues and problems, to see a counselor. And the illegal street drugs can cause a lot of harm to the brain that is hard to recover late in life, making that black market very avoidable.

  • Chelsea Dennis

    Lexapro definitely dulled my creativity. After 8 years of use my creative edge slowly began to dwindle. I rarely get that spark anymore, when I used to have creative thoughts throughout the day. I wrote, drew, read books, and was active. I wish I had dealt with my ptsd how I am dealing with it now – no meds and an amazing support system to allow me to deal with my issues and heal. To be around people who empower you and put your happiness first. I also developed depression and chronic fatigue syndrome while I was on Lexapro. I felt so dull. Like a shell of who I once was. Going through the withdrawals and dealing with my problems head on will be well worth it for me in the end. I will do what it takes to get my creative edge back. It was the only thing that made me feel purpose and putting an idea on paper was better than sex. I rarely have that natural high anymore. No one can say it doesn’t dampen creativity, because I am proof it can. Just like I cannot speak for everyone else and make assumptions because that would be very ignorant. And I assumed most people who deal with mental illness know that people react to drugs differently and should not make blanket statement. I am wrong, apparently.

    • An Onymous

      Perhaps your medication had a direct negative effect on your creativity, but even if that was the case, it is a mistake to generalise about anti-depressants. These medicines reduce suffering and save lives.

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