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.