The death of Heath Ledger, whether or not it's actually attributable in any way to his depression, sparked a few conversations about the connection between creativity and depression.
This is a subject I've given a lot of thought to, because for most of my life I've based a large portion of my identity on being a poet - and poets are so frequently associated with this romanticized view of depression.
Does an artist need to suffer? Do they need it in order to have the material to produce art? To have the impetus? The insight?
Does being mentally ill provide an advantage to an artist? Does it allow them to step outside normal boundaries and access greater creativity? Does it inspire them? Drive them?
Over the years, I've had different answers to these questions for myself. I do think that it's hard to produce art if your life has always been easy, if your challenges have been small and easily overcome, if you've lived inside the "norm" comfortably.
In terms of suffering due to external causes (as opposed to mental illness, there's a saying that it's impossible to create art when you're starving, or the idea that art is a luxury... yet I've witnessed some of the most inspired work from people in duress, people on the edge.
I'm reminded of a singer I saw on the streets of Prague when I was homeless. I was begging for spare change in one of the main squares, it was early winter, and the first real snow had fallen. A pale, thin woman in a cheap quilted coat stood near one of the churches, a man beside her with a little tape player. He set the player down, pushed play and the tinny sound barely reached a few feet... and then she began to sing. Not simply sing, but reach up to heaven with her voice, the purest and most passionate soprano I have ever heard. It was simply transcendent.
A few months later, in the early spring - I saw the woman again. She had a better coat, more color in her cheeks, and the weather was turning warmer - and her voice, though still accomplished and beautiful, lacked that extra dimension.
On the other hand, being too far outside society for too long is more often a disadvantage - "outsider art" has it's own appellation because it's simply not as accomplished as other forms. Being pushed to extremes is more often a distraction, or can wear down an artist until they haven't the energy to produce anything.
And what about mental illness?
This article mentions the "creative fire," and associates mild mania (specifically with bipolar disorder) with creative intensity - but is that an accurate association? the specific characteristics they describe are, indeed, also components of what is sometimes called the "creative trance" which many artists enter when they create. A hyper-sensitivity to stimuli, especially emotional stimuli; lowered inhibitions; and the tendency to become intensely focused while working. I find that those are actually part of the reason I sometimes avoid writing - especially the absorption. When I get into a project I have to allow things to effect me more deeply, to drop my inhibitions, and I become intensely absorbed...and it can interfere with my ability to function. During my most creative periods I have trouble keeping a job, embarrassed myself and done damage to professional and personal relationships by simply saying too much because I lose my sense of what's socially appropriate, and I had difficulty relating to others in a rational manner. So yes, I would agree that there is some level of social dysfunction associated with intense creativity... but is it an advantage, and is it necessary?
Most people who have bipolar disorder or major depression do not become great artists - so it's not as though these illnesses automatically will make you a genius.
An article on the APA website suggests that part of the connection may be self-reflection. Both creative persons and people with depression exhibit a higher degree of introspection than average. So it may be that the conditions which encourage and develop creativity also tend to encourage the development of depression or manic-depression.
Another factor, as mentioned here, is that creativity can be stifled. It's dismissed, or put down, or set aside for "real" problems. And that stifling of potential can lead to depression. Another article discusses this in a more complex manner, and even suggests that some of the characteristics of creativity can be mistaken for mania.
Mary Rocamora, who counsels gifted people, and heads The Rocamora School in Los Angeles school, which provides awareness training classes for gifted and talented adults, says those "who are passionately engaged with their talent but are constantly separated from the creative experience by relentless self-criticism, self-doubt, and feelings of inferiority often suffer from depression and the periodic shutting down of their spontaneous creative impulses. The drive to express their inner creativity is heightened in many gifted individuals, and when the drive to create meets the wall of shame, it implodes into numbness, rage, depression, and hopelessness." She also notes that it is well known among researchers of the gifted, talented and creative that these individuals "exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability, and that this is a normal pattern of development." Dr. Linda Silverman, Director of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development in Denver, has also cautioned that this higher level of excitability and intensity may be perceived and misdiagnosed as manic depression.
But the article I found most helpful was this one: An interview with a doctor who did an empirical study on creativity and mental illness, and so is speaking from facts rather than supposition. In his study, around 70% of the writers had depression, which is just massive. However, he noted that during a depressive or manic phase, an individual is not motivated or organized enough to actually create. It is only after they emerge from that state that they are able to use those experiences as fuel. He addresses the fear that some have of medication stifling their creativity with examples, and states that creative people are more functional and more able to actually produce work while their illness is under control. He also notes that besides major Depression and Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia has a link to creativity - but once again, not when it is out of control.
Which makes me optimistic.
Does an artists need to suffer? I would say that yes, they do - they need it as fuel. But who, in their life, has never suffered? And that suffering, like branches gathered in the woods during a storm, is only useful to light the creative fires once it has cured and dried, after the rain is gone.