Illustration by George Douglas

When I started on this series of Design + Mental Health features, I’d assumed it would be fairly straightforward: I would speak to some designers about their mental health problems, contemplate how being a designer exacerbates them, and look at ideas of how agencies and clients can be more understanding of those designers affected. Then back it all up with the studies and figures we’ve all seen weaving their way around the internet about how creative types are more prone to anxiety, how prescriptions are on the up, and so forth.

But, like mental health conditions themselves, things weren’t as simple as that; they were knotty and complex, much like our minds. And instead, I found myself agreeing more and more with certain interviewees at the dangers of flippant mental health reporting, and began considering how “ghoulish,” to quote one, it is for us to become unwilling “tourists” into mental health issues. By “tourists,” we mean the surface-skimming, mildly self-congratulatory flurry of blogs, Medium posts, and clickbait articles that tout mental health like it’s the new hashtagfeminism.

Mental health is serious, ugly, and deadly—yet we’re seeing it co-opted by brands and agencies alike in the name of thinly veiled marketing ploys and social media kudos.

 

And it made me rather uneasy at the prospect of this feature being lumped in with those sort of pieces.

Mental health needs to be discussed with the consideration and thoughtfulness it deserves; not as a sort of extension of “branded content” put out by a creative director waiting for an online round of applause from his share-happy mates.

It’s been said before but it bears repeating: many are willing to discuss their experiences of depression and anxiety, even of anorexia; very few will open up about those mental illnesses that are still widely—though mostly privately—regarded as frightening and unpalatable. Things like borderline personality disorder, psychosis, and pathological sexuality aren’t as easily wrapped up into neat sound bites accompanied by images of sunsets with aphorisms that might as well read “cheer up, sad sack.”

But however much certain diagnoses fit within the Overton window (arguably, anxiety and depression are now widely accepted within discourse, unlike the conditions mentioned above), they all deserve to be discussed with respect, and with an open mind. This means moving away from widely-shared beliefs that any sort of deviation from being mentally “healthy” is inherently bad.

Robert Ballard, a freelance designer in London points out that the way we consider certain conditions to be wholly problematic is somewhat problematic in itself. “Someone shared something on social media a few months ago and the upshot was that there’s a disproportionately high number of people with mental health issues in the creative industry, and it’s a problem we should be addressing,” he says. “And it made me think, as soon as you use that terminology it becomes a problem.

“In a way, areas like the creative industries, or being a musician or an artist, were areas where being a bit crazy or having a slightly askance view on things wasn’t a problem as much as actually almost a kind of necessary aptitude to have to do that job.”

He points to Ed Sheeran as exemplary of 2017’s rather vanilla predilections when it comes to culture. “Popular culture as a whole has actually lessened its impact and become a lot more safe and stable because of an almost total absence of people you could describe as being a little bit ‘crazy,’ for want of a better word.”

Ballard says that having prominent, successful creative people with mental health issues that manifest in ways that are clearly unpleasant—and a society that allows them to be so—is a crucial yet diminishing thing for other people who are suffering. The problem with that, I offer, is that we end up romanticizing the idea of the “tortured genius” in a way that could undermine the seriousness of such conditions. For the most part, we see the work; not the struggle. Isn’t that just as dangerous?

“I think people are going to have problems anyway,” Ballard says. “If they’re going to have some sort of lineage they can identify with, or people who maybe stand in opposition to normality or a normal daily routine but have still found a way to ‘be,’ then it allows them the opportunity to express themselves. It’s good for people to look and see those people as role models, in a sense.”

Perhaps he has a point. The creative industry very often prides itself on valuing difference, but how often does that manifest itself in supporting and valuing those whose minds work in different ways sometimes in ways that can be difficult or challenging? Mental health, after all, isn’t just about fragility: it can make us not just tricky to be around, but at times rather vile.

People often talk about the times they’ve been too anxious to work, or so depressed they’ve spent a week in bed; yet few admit to the times that being unwell has led to them being violent, or promiscuous, or unkind to those around them as well as themselves. Mental illness can make us selfish, unpleasant, smelly, and nasty people.

“That’s why I really rate Tracey Emin as an artist,” says Ballard. “People really want to polish and finesse their lives, probably because of social media, but she did [My Bed] and said ‘this is it, these are the condoms, the spliff butts, the vodka, this is what being depressed looks like, and it’s shit and it smells and it’s horrible.’”

Many of Ballard’s thoughts are echoed by Eric Maisel, a trained psychotherapist turned “creativity coach,” who turned his back on the psychotherapy model in his bid to “support the paradigm shift from seeking meaning to making meaning.” Essentially, he rejects the idea that certain psychotherapy models purport the idea that an “expert” knows what’s going on in another person’s head better than they do.

Crucially, he rejects the definitions spelled out by DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and ICD (International Classification of Diseases), ideas that pin “anxiety” as a “mental disorder.” He describes anxiety as a natural “feature of our learnt warning system against danger… We don’t do a beautiful job of dealing with what’s dangerous, but that doesn’t change how we feel or react.”

“There are scores of reasons why creative folks experience more anxiety without it being a mental disorder.”

For Maisel, one of the fundamental reasons people in creative roles are more likely to be affected by anxiety is because they’re constantly being forced to make choices. “Choosing provokes anxiety,” he says. “Most professions don’t demand that you have to make one choice after another, which provokes anxiety. Going into the unknown—even if we’re adults—going to that blank canvas or place of not knowing can feel dangerous. [As designers] we will be judged, criticized, and pushed back, and we hate that. People hate putting things out into the world and getting nothing back. We all care about reactions and a thing’s response in the world. If anyone had to put things out in the world like creative people do they would experience anxiety.”

So is anxiety just anxiety? Are we wrong to differentiate between anxiety as a noun, and anxiety as a “condition?” It’s dangerous to sum up depression as flippantly as feeling “a bit sad,” but maybe some labels can be counterproductive. Then again, the last thing anyone with mental health issues needs is having their experiences minimized.

A recent Fast Company article is among the great smoldering pyre of online fodder that cheerily points out how “creative” professionals—“creativity” defined as “the production of something new and meaningful”—were about 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population (with that statistic in writers raised to a startling 121% more likely). And while we’ve seen at least a 121% increase in articles like this recently, Simon Kyaga, the lead researcher of the study on which the piece is based, makes some salient remarks in arguing against diagnostic definitions of “sick” and “well” in mental health patients.  “The underlying traits [of these illnesses] might confer advantages, e.g. creativity,” he told Fast Company. Discussing bipolar in particular, he says:

“When you’re manic, you get more things done, but you also get more and wider ideas. And the more ideas you have, the more creative you are.”

He’s right, of course. The click-and-share headline would read, “Mania! The 1,03,997 projects they started next will BLOW YOUR MIND!”

So how could mental health be discussed more effectively and thoughtfully by the creative community? For Ballard, the proof isn’t always in the discussions, but the work itself. “It would be much more impactful and genuine thing if you [saw their work] and felt you could relate to the sadness or the elation or the joy in that, and I can see that the person that came up with this has felt the same way as I have on some occasions.

“I would much rather give them that acceptance when I see something so deeply personal and it connects with me, not talking about it or breaking it up or being, like, ‘we need to talk about mental health in the creative industries’ for a bit of social media content.”

The conundrum in any discussion of mental health, and indeed creativity, is the thorny subjectivity of it all. We can try and describe as best we can how we feel—creative people are more adept than any at showing, if not telling how they feel—yet for all the most heartfelt and expressive and raw missives in the world, we cannot truly ever know or judge how another person is feeling. It’s a weight that bears down heavily, writing a piece like this; how do we engage with mental health issues but not trivialize them? How do we warn against such trivialization without adding to it?

Part of the way through writing this piece I came rather unstuck (nothing to do with writing the piece, a natural and expected cycle) after a few glorious months of manic positivity and productivity. I find this experience best summed up by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I can connect/Nothing with nothing”—a sudden bleak inability to think; or read; or speak; or keep my eyes open. A strange prolonged time of waking up all bloodied for no apparent reason, with all the odd hallucinations and an urgent deluded drive to detach from everything that’s actually very important—partner, job, home city, and so on. Which in the grand scheme of it, is really nothing, but feels quite nasty.

Things have been nastier, for most people. After it all passed, I wondered if any of it was there at all. Was I just making a big deal of it? When we’re depressed or anxious and we get over it, were we just making a big deal of it? Are these labels helpful, or ultimately destructive? Maybe we just needed a nice snooze, and a glass of water. Maybe it’s impossible to manage to tell other people what will make them feel better in a blog post, diagnosis, or even a prescription. One person’s mental health experiences may be the key to their creativity; for another person, it might be the poison that stifles it.

Because “mental health” isn’t a catchall term, we have to be more even more conscientious about discussing it in a way that’s productive, inclusive, and sensitive to the horrible but occasionally rather brilliant nuances of it all. “Even with people who have very low-level anxiety and depression, you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who have had stories and reasons for them being in that situation that were similar on anything more than a surface level,” says Ballard.

“When you reduce those things to a soundbite, that’s the issue.”

“I think maybe what’s slightly different in my brain to what’s in ‘normal’ people’s brains helped me to [be creative] it in the first place. I think now what’s slightly different in my brain to what’s in other people’s brains has precluded me from turning it into a stable, progressive career.”