Artists' Mental Health

We tend to have a romanticized image of the brilliant, tortured artist, suffering for the creative cause. Many of us have heard of the famous artists who reportedly struggled with their mental health, such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso or Edvard Munch. Alongside these figures is a long history of debating the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

While a link between mental illness and creativity has become a firm belief in popular culture, the research on the matter has produced mixed results. Some studies have reported a link between the two, but many of these have been met with criticism.

What is clear, however, is that anyone can experience mental health challenges at some point, and artists are no different. People in all careers can face burnout and work-related stress. Artists face pressures unique to their work which can contribute to their individual risk of mental health challenges. There are many options available, including therapy, that can help improve wellbeing for all.

Unique challenges for artists

Like most professions, working as an artist comes with its own unique challenges. Examples include:

  • Creative block
  • Inconsistent or unpredictable work
  • Inconsistent or insecure income
  • Depending on their particular work arrangements, artists may not always be entitled to sick leave if they are unwell
  • Generally, a lower income compared to many other professions
  • Self-doubt and variable levels of success as their work is rejected or accepted
  • Some people feel that they depend on alcohol or substances for creativity - although this does not occur as frequently as romanticized popular opinion might have us believe
  • Challenges and stigma created as a result of the romanticized connection between mental illness and creativity  

How common are mental health challenges for artists?

One of the most comprehensive recent studies examined associations between specific mental illnesses and creative occupations in over 1 million people in Sweden. (1)

They found that:

  • People in creative professions were more likely to experience bipolar disorder.
  • Aside from bipolar disorder, they were no more likely to have a mental illness than the general population.
  • They were less likely than other people to have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD or to have committed suicide.
  • However, they found that writers were more vulnerable to some mental illnesses compared to other creative professions and the general population.

Additionally, a review of nearly 30 studies found that there was only limited evidence to associate creativity with mental illness. (2)

Common mental health issues for artists

Overall, it appears that artists can be affected by the same mental health conditions as everyone else, particularly when experiencing work-related pressures. Common challenges that artists may experience in such situations include:

What to do if you are an artist struggling with mental health challenges

If you are struggling with mental health challenges, consider a combination of the following actions:

  • Take time out for your mental health: Take a break from your work to focus on your own wellbeing. Do something you enjoy or find relaxing, like watching a movie or going for a walk.
  • Social support: People often feel like withdrawing from family and friends when they are going through a challenging time. However, it’s important to stay connected. Reach out to friends and family for help or to talk things over.
  • Peer support: Reach out to your colleagues; people are often surprised to learn how many others are facing similar difficulties. This can help you to feel that you are not alone and normalizes difficult emotions and experiences.
  • Therapy: Psychological talking therapies in both individual and group contexts can help with mental health challenges. Types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
  • Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
  • Checkups: See your physician for regular checkups and to eliminate any medical conditions that could be contributing to mental health challenges.
  • Self-care: Pay attention to your diet, try to maintain a regular sleep pattern, and exercise regularly. Find activities that you enjoy, and make time for them in your schedule. Such lifestyle factors can help to regulate our moods. (4,5,6)
  • Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you to observe emotions, thoughts and sensations without judging or reacting to them.

Therapy types to consider for artists

Most types of therapy can be applied to the mental health challenges that artists may experience. Common evidence-based therapy types include:

Click on the links above to learn more about these types of therapy; this will give you an idea of which type of therapy might align well with you personally. For example, some people prefer a more structured and educational style of therapy, like CBT. Other artists may feel more comfortable working in a creative arts therapy framework. You can then look for therapists that offer your preferred therapy type.

What to look for in a therapist

The best-fitting type of therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms and your location. When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:

Personal fit

Consider the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. The trusting working relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy.

Qualifications and experience

It is important to look for a licensed mental health professional. This ensures that the therapist has undertaken the appropriate education and training.

Talk in advance

The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This gives you the opportunity to ask about:

  • Their qualifications and experience working with artists and others with work-related stress
  • What type of therapy they suggest, and what that will be like
  • Whether they offer creative arts therapies or can combine it with other therapies, if this aligns with your personal preferences
  • Their participation in insurance plans and the cost of therapy.

Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

Zencare can help you to find a therapist who is a good personal fit. You can browse the videos of our vetted therapists and book a free phone call. This can help you to figure out whether you feel comfortable discussing difficult issues with the therapist, and gives a sense of what the therapist’s approach is like.

Sources and references:

  1. Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study
  2. Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?
  3. National Health Service, “Study looks at creativity link with mental illness”
  4. Lifestyle and Mental Health
  5. Physical Exercise for Treatment of Mood Disorders: A Critical Review
  6. Sleep: A Marker of Physical and Mental Health in the Elderly