Headlines often pop up in the news about yet another link between mental illness and creative people. But why do we hear about so many artists who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression? Are creative people simply more prone to mental illness than the general population, or is something deeper at work?
In his book The Van Gogh Blues, Eric Maisel, PhD, explains another possible cause of depression in creative people: a “meaning crisis”—which he says is unique to those who create for pleasure or for work.
When I picked up this book, I was intrigued by the idea of an approach to depression tailored to the needs of an artist. Rejection letters, the letdown after success, lack of sales, bad reviews, or inadequate time to create are often a big deal to artistic, creative, individuals.
Maisel’s theory on why artists are particularly vulnerable to depression is based on the idea that as artists, we have a need to make meaning in our lives. If we don’t have a strong sense of meaning in our work, each assault on our efforts will bring about a “meaning crisis,” which can result in depression (and in turn can cause unhealthy coping behaviors to counter that depression).
I had difficulty focusing as I read the first couple of chapters, as I realized that I had not addressed my own meaning crisis, having experienced a few tumultuous years of personal joys and losses.
NOTE: I actually put the book aside for the better part of a year while I worked on getting my own personal beliefs in order. I waited until I felt comfortable picking it back up after having that core part of my life settled.
If you’re planning to read this book, I would suggest that you take some time in the beginning to identify the tenets of your own belief system, as you’ll end up needing these as part of your quest to make meaning in your life as an artist.
Once Maisel establishes the groundwork for identifying a meaning crisis, he takes the reader through a series of steps, all toward the goal of making life for the creative person meaningful.
The author provides ample testimony from creative coaches and their clients, bringing home the points that if we are going to create, we need to be prepared to counter the depression doing so can bring by having a plan in place.
Once I got a few chapters into the book, I found myself enjoying it immensely. Maisel’s advice is authentic, well-researched, and truly unique to the artistic reader. It was gratifying to read a book written by an author who understands artists so well. Even though some of Maisel’s theories and suggestions might sound a bit abstract at first, the testimonials from creative people and their coaches verify the usefulness of considering such ideas.
For example, it was a relief to think about a rejection letter as a “meaning leak,” or temporary damage to my sense of meaning as an artist, rather than a reason to feel sorry for myself and consider giving up a creative project!
Maisel also addresses the unhealthy coping mechanisms some artists fall into, and how to draw from a strong sense of meaning to avoid such behaviors. The book doesn’t address actual psychotherapy or medical treatment for depression, although he briefly acknowledges at the end that these are also useful components of depression treatment, in addition to identifying a sense of meaning and putting a plan into action and create meaningful work.
I would recommend The Van Gogh Blues to just about anyone who spends time creating, as most of us are familiar with the repeated highs and lows of creating and sharing our work with the public.
I’m not sure that it would be as helpful to someone struggling through an episode of deep depression, simply due to the nature of the advice, which involves a lot of self-motivation and determination on the reader’s part. However, if you create for fun or for a living, and have caught yourself questioning the value of your work (or your will to continue creating) this book is definitely worth your time!