Depression in the Arts


Grumpy Old Bookman draws my atten­tion to some research into depres­sion in those who make their liv­ing (or try to) from the arts.


May I draw your atten­tion, yet again, to the research pub­lished by Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her study showed that 38% of a group of emin­ent British writers and artists had been treated for a mood dis­order of one kind or anoth­er; of these, 75% had had anti­de­press­ants or lith­i­um pre­scribed, or had been hos­pit­al­ised. Of play­wrights, 63% had been treated for depres­sion. These pro­por­tions are, as you will have guessed, are many times high­er than in the pop­u­la­tion at large. 


Well, I’m not startled by this because I can’t think of anoth­er pro­fes­sion that applies pres­sures more con­du­cive to depres­sion than the arts, and writ­ing fic­tion in par­tic­u­lar.

I teach psy­cho­lo­gic­al research meth­ods to post­gradu­ate stu­dents, and I have a PhD in exper­i­ment­al psy­cho­logy, so you might think I have some form of expert­ise. And the answer is ‘yes’, I do have some form of expert­ise, but, alas, it is unre­lated to clin­ic­al psy­cho­logy. It is much more related to four years study­ing the word ‘that’. However, ‘that’ won’t stop me (Oh, God, kill me know) observing that the job of writ­ing some­what pre­dis­poses us towards depres­sion

The writer works alone and for long peri­ods. Social isol­a­tion is linked to depres­sion because social inter­ac­tion provides vari­ous kinds of sup­port that can inhib­it depress­ive thoughts and tend­en­cies. The writer doesn’t get much exer­cise. Regular exer­cise mit­ig­ates against the devel­op­ment of depress­ive symp­toms. The writer is poorly paid, and this might lead to poor diet (though I must say that, in my case, the reduc­tion in shop­ping budget has led to health­i­er meals), which is linked to depres­sion. Poor pay is also linked to lowered social status, anoth­er caus­al factor in depres­sion. Finally, your suc­cess as a writer is almost com­pletely attrib­ut­able to oth­er people — edit­ors, pub­lish­ers, read­ers — and when those people aren’t help­ful (i.e. you almost nev­er find your­self in court defend­ing a point­less action that will only drive up sales of your already mon­strous book), this might lead to a sense of hope­less­ness, and a feel­ing that the fun­da­ment­als of life are not under your con­trol.

A psy­cho­lo­gist called Julian Rotter developed the idea of ‘locus of con­trol’. Essentially, it refers to the individual’s con­cep­tion of wheth­er the import­ant things in life (rela­tion­ships, job, well-being, etc.) are determ­ined by the indi­vidu­al — an intern­al locus of con­trol — or determ­ined by extern­al forces — an extern­al locus of con­trol. This is prob­ably gets to the nub of the mat­ter. Artists are con­stantly exposed to approv­al from the word go, from pho­to­graph­ers to paint­ers to writers, and con­stantly at threat that the approv­al will be with­drawn (I would guess). Of course, artists are per­haps more sens­it­ive than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, too.

Am I depressed? No. But then, I’m an idi­ot. Only an idi­ot would want to write for money (the point Grumpy makes, not for the first time) when he should be tucked away in a uni­ver­sity some­where, research­ing his overedu­cated arse off.

It must be said that I’ve been some­what glib with my descrip­tion of depres­sion in this art­icle. If you sus­pect your­self, or someone you know, to be suf­fer­ing from depres­sion, you should seek pro­fes­sion­al med­ic­al advice. Here are some web­sites about depres­sion cata­logued by an organ­isa­tion for which I work.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

7 thoughts on “Depression in the Arts”

  1. Hmm so now the artist­ic ppl of the world have the cut­ting edge on angst, depres­sion and so forth…I would chal­lenge some of your state­ments irre­spect­ive of stats and research. Depression per­meates all strata’s of soci­ety and one must be care­ful not to focus on a par­tic­u­lar group and pump up the volume on their alleged suf­fer­ing. It could serve to rein­force to some their artist­ic abil­it­ies are chained to a pre­dis­pos­i­tion to depres­sion…

  2. I agree, depres­sion does per­meate all strata of soci­ety. However, my art­icle is based on a piece of research that sug­gests depres­sion levels are elev­ated in those attempt to make a liv­ing in the arts.

  3. Ian — Your com­ment about the locus of con­trol reminds me of some­thing that I don’t remem­ber ever refer­ring to on my blog (Grumpy Old Bookman) namely the fact that I vol­un­tar­ily gave up using a lead­ing agent. For many years I was rep­res­en­ted both in the USA and UK by top names in the agen­t­ing busi­ness. In 1999, how­ever, I decided (to cut a long story short) that I was not happy about the loss of con­trol that this involved. Hence I gave up using an agent. This was much to the dis­may of the UK agent, who had inves­ted a lot of time and energy, over sev­er­al years, in try­ing to mar­ket my stuff, without major suc­cess. However, imme­di­ately the decision was made, I felt much bet­ter, psy­cho­lo­gic­ally. I have nev­er regret­ted it. I now pub­lish all my own stuff, which means that I make almost zero money and have few­er read­ers than if I was pub­lished by a major com­pany. But at least the stuff gets out there, when I want it to, in the form I want it to. Control, in oth­er words, rests entirely with me. I recom­mend it.

  4. Hello,
    I am passing on (via Dave Lull) a couple of inter­est­ing (to me) art­icles about intro­vertism. Parts of these art­icles (though not all) seem to res­on­ate with depres­sion and cre­ativ­ity (includ­ing writ­ing).
    (The second of these urls is to the ori­gin­al art­icle.)
    Hope you enjoy them.
    I just dis­covered your blog via Michael Allen’s, and have put Deja Vu on my (extremely extens­ive) read­ing list.

    All best
    Maxine (aka Petrona at

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