Author Jim C. Hines wrote an excellent post about depression on Tuesday. Unfortunately, while most of the comments are good, some of them are textbook examples of obnoxious things people say about depression (‘be at peace with yourself?’ What does that even mean?).
Hines took some time today to talk about unsolicited medical advice and why it’s a problem, but I want to take a sec to talk about a different comment on the original post:
While I’m doing pretty well these days, I’ve dealt with depression in the past. It’s likely that I’ll deal with it again. I’ve spent time medicated. I’ve spent time essentially non-functional. I’ve spent time going through the motions of normalcy even though it required an exhausting amount of willpower, only to have my exhaustion held up as a sign of my weak moral character.
Jeff’s language about “major changes in a person’s life” make it sound like he’s talking about situational depression. While situational depression is real and difficult, it’s a very different animal than chronic depression. Chronic depression tends to come in cycles. It can be beaten back, but never fully ‘cured.’ Advising people to see it as a ‘catalyst for change’ is, at best, insensitive.
What’s actually bothering me about this comment, though, is the suggestion that depression can inspire creativity. People with depression hear this a lot. Tortured artists are part of our cultural zeitgeist. And while I’m sure that many of the people who trot out this line mean well, I want to take a moment to unpack why it’s problematic.
First, we don’t actually have a lot of evidence that depression ‘inspires creativity.’ We know that a small subset of people with depression have produced skillful and moving works of art. It does not automatically follow, however, that depression ‘inspired’ their art. It could be that they created in spite of their depression.
Even when people use art to help work through their personal demons, it still doesn’t necessarily follow that their depression made them better artists. We don’t know what they would have created if they weren’t depressed.
Some people with cancer create incredible works of art, but most people know better than to tell them the ‘glass is half full.’ Rather, we appreciate what they’re able to create in the face of their devastating disease, and mourn their deaths if their disease proves fatal.
Depression is also a potentially fatal disease, and glamorizing depression in artists trivializes that. It reduces artists who suffer from depression to martyrs for the cause of artistic greatness, as if their suffering is some kind of gift to the universe.
People with depression don’t owe us their pain. They don’t owe us their exhaustion, their anxiety, their boredom, or their anger. They certainly don’t owe us art.
If they’re able to find comfort or pleasure in artistic endeavors, good for them. If they’re able to use creative work to process and heal, all the better. If their depression makes creating more difficult but they do it anyway because that’s how they put food on the table, we should respect that work without romanticizing their struggles. And if they need to spend time focusing on their own health and not making anything, then good on them for taking care of themselves, and they should get to do so without bystanders telling them ‘the glass is half full.’
Artists with depression are whole people whose struggles and triumphs do not belong to the rest of us. They deserve to be recognized for their hard work and talent without having their accomplishments reduced to a symptom of their disease.