Tortured Genius or Underemployed Professional?

Tortured Genius or Underemployed Professional?

Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.

Kay Redfield Jamison’s classic book, Touched with Fire, makes the case that mania and depression (separately or as manifested in bipolar disorder) occur significantly more frequently in artists than in the general population. Her work, published in 1993, focuses mainly on writers, painters, and composers, but I think we’re all familiar with the popular notion that you have to be a little crazy to make a serious commitment to doing any kind of creative work. Accurate or not, the ‘tortured creative genius’ is an all-too-familiar trope in our culture.

Jamison provides an extensive overview of the long history of attempts to link creativity and madness. For a few centuries, the “proof” was mainly anecdotal; psychopathology had to be inferred from the artist’s biography. Sometimes there were direct references to mental illness in the work itself:

…his raptures were,
All air, and fire, which made his verses clear,
For that fine madness still he did retain,
Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.
– Michael Drayton, 1753

In recent decades there has been plenty of demographic evidence showing that certain psychological problems do in fact occur more frequently in artists. The strength and directionality of the connection is less clear, however. As Jamison writes elsewhere, “most people who are creative do not have mental illness and most people who are mentally ill are not unusually creative. It is, rather, that there is a disproportionate rate of psychopathology, especially bipolar disorder, in highly creative individuals.”

Now come the big questions: Why do some creative folk develop emotional difficulties? Which comes first, the so-called ‘pathology’ or the desire to create? Does anxiety or depression act as the impetus to express oneself? Do mood disorders and other problems develop as a result of choosing a creative path? Finally, (and this is the question I really want to discuss in this piece), is the harsh reality of trying to make a living as an artist responsible for the mental health issues that actors, dancers and musicians sometimes experience?

Recently published research addresses this question directly. A 2015 study called Working in the Entertainment Industry posits that mental health problems like depression, anxiety and suicidality are far more common among performing artists as an alleged result of practical, external factors. This study provides strong correlative evidence that underemployment, employment uncertainty, unregulated working conditions and the devaluation of artistic work often precedes the onset of emotional and cognitive impairment. This research was done in Australia, which says two things to me: first, the data may not precisely match what we might find if a similar study was conducted in the U.S.; and second, the fact that there IS no such published research in this country is not all that surprising, given the minuscule amount of arts-related funding provided by government and the private sector in the U.S.

The Australian researchers found that performing artists confront various mental health issues at much higher rates than the population at large. Artists are ten times more likely to suffer from anxiety and five times more prone to depression. Similarly, they are three times more likely to experience sleep disorders. Artists have higher rates of suicidal ideation, planning and attempts; their abuse of alcohol and other substances is also significantly greater.

Demographic data from the study confirms other things that many of us in the biz have observed. For example, income from creative work is far below the national median income. The large majority of actors, dancers and musicians have to maintain secondary employment to make ends meet. The number of performers who continue working past the age of 30 declines precipitously, which the researchers interpret to mean that, as people begin to focus on their non-arts-related life (marriage, family, home ownership, financial stability), they are more likely to give up on their artistic ambitions and “get a real job.” People who continue to work as professional performers past 30 have to make lifestyle choices that may be at odds with the needs and desires of romantic partners or other family members. There are a lot of internal and external pressures that can create painful conflicts if one is stubborn (or devoted) enough to want to stay in the business past one’s youth.

One of the most ominous findings of the Australian research was pointed out to me in a personal communication from the lead author of the study. Julie van den Eynde, Ph.D. wrote that they found “a solid link with suicidal behaviour (ideation, planning and attempts) to depression, anxiety and lack of social support. There was no link to alcohol and drug use. There were no differences in gender, nor age. These findings run counter to the normal population as suicide behaviour is different for age, and gender, and is linked to alcohol and drug use. This means the creative artists and performers are a different and separate group.”

In other words, performing artists are a “different and separate group” that is at higher risk for suicidal behaviors, regardless of other factors (like age, gender and substance abuse). This is not good news, folks.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the external factors cited by the Australian report that impact the mental health of people working in the arts.

Underemployment/low income: More than 80% of the performers surveyed earned less than the average annual income of all Australians. 60% earned less than the national minimum wage. Only 8% were employed full-time in arts-related jobs.

Employment uncertainty: Only half of the study’s respondents had generated their primary income from performing.

Unregulated working conditions: 40% of the respondents reported having to work evenings and weekends. Well over 50% describe their work hours as “unpredictable”.

The authors conclude that “there is ample evidence to support the assertion that the work environment of the creative person is…fraught with difficult and challenging circumstances. These include performance anxiety , public ‘do not understand’, work overload, work underload,…career anxiety, a lack of career mobility, irregular working hours, high rates of injury, low financial rewards, [having to maintain] high standards of performance, financial insecurity and sporadic work.”

I’m assuming that almost none of this is news to you. Despite the fact that the performing arts contribute so much to the enjoyment and enrichment of people’s lives, the folks who do the performing are too often treated as if their work has very little value. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to draw a parallel between an artist’s work and her life. When you’ve devoted so much time and energy to developing your talent, you tend to identify very strongly with your work. If I ask you, “who are you?” I’m guessing that your first answer would likely be, “I’m an actor (or musician or dancer).” If your life’s work is subject to the uncertainty and devaluation described in the study, what might that mean for your self-image? For your self-esteem? For your very identity?

Since all of the evidence we have is correlative, we can’t say with any real confidence that low (or no) pay, uncertain employment, poor working conditions (especially for the folks who work without the benefit of a union) or any of the other factors cause mental health issues. We also can’t say that bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety are the causes or results of following a creative path. What we have is essentially a classic nature vs. environment argument. Performers are a “different and separate” group of people who may be predisposed to emotional difficulties working in a profession that is inherently challenging to our sense of self-worth and literal survival.

What can we do about it? We’ll tackle that next time.

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PerformInk is Chicago's entertainment industry trade publication.