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We need to talk about depression in the creative industries

Helen Forbes

This week, my 13-year-old son heard the news about Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. The media reported that the actor had been battling severe depression at the time, and my son asked me:

"He looks like such a happy guy – I wonder what made him sad?"

And then, a second later:

“Is that what you had mum?”

I’ve been open with family, friends and colleagues about the depression I’ve experienced through my life, most recently after the birth of my third child. And I’ve been lucky enough to have the support I needed to recover.

But on telling those in the company about my situation, I was struck by how many people ‘came out of the woodwork’, telling me about themselves, friends and loved ones who had experienced the same.

There’s an expectation that certain careers with lots of traumatic incidents – say doctor, nurse, firefighter – come with mental health risks.

But research shows those in creative professions are also prone to depression at a higher rate than the general population.

There isn’t much – or seemingly nothing official – recording levels of depression in the advertising, marketing design and media industries.

But looking at creative individuals more widely, the results are unarguable.

Neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Nancy Andreasen has studied creative people – writers, artists and more – for several decades. What she’s found is the same every time: a higher rate of mental illness among creative individuals.

The link has been reported elsewhere too. It seems the same traits that ‘cause’ creativity may also be linked to higher rates of mental illness.

Marketing, designing, advertising et al aren’t the same as producing novels or art. But we work in high-pressure environments in which we are expected to be creative on demand.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Dr Andreasen noted that many creative people share a personality style. They “are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. […] They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do.

“This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

I wish I knew no one to whom that last sentence applied.

Creativity, doubt, rejection – these things are present in every minute of agency life. But while we expect our writers and artists to be unique, possibly eccentric, maybe aloof, sometimes unproductive for months or years, we expect our agencies to be bright, sunny, constantly productive and positive.

Multiple images are maintained to multiple people – cool-headed, business-focussed, trendy, on the cutting edge, calm, busy.

These demands place unusual stresses on those involved.

Stress doesn’t cause depression, but it can be a trigger, and particularly so in a segment of the population already prone to it.

It’s crucial to say now that depression is not linked to a career. It can affect anyone, and does. In an agency however, when you consider that most people are involved in creative on some level, it could affect a far broader cross section of staff.

A survey about stress released by Nabs (the National Advertising Benevolent Society) last autumn, revealed that two thirds of those questioned admitted to feeling so stressed they were unable to cope at points during their career. 52 per cent said they would worry about telling senior staff in case they were viewed as weak.

And that’s just stress – not anxiety disorder, not depression. But stress and depression are both badly abused terms, often used interchangeably, and can often mean the same thing for the person at the centre.

There are organisations that can help – the likes of Nabs for the advertising industry, Mind, and in Scotland SAMH. But these rely on people being able to recognise that they are ill and make their own decision to seek help.

We need a greater industry awareness of depression. We need management to be aware of what it looks like in their staff and staff able to recognise it in their peers. This might mean someone who needs help can be offered it, even when they might not recognise it in themselves.

Agencies need to ensure information is easily available, spot high pressure working practices/triggers and work to reduce them, and even possibly have a dedicated staff member in-house who can provide information to those who need it. This is a potentially deadly illness, routinely ignored out of shame and fear.

There are many signs of depression – including manic behaviour or disengagement, tiredness or exhaustion or self-medication. Some of the most common ones are simply seen, at low levels, as side effects of the jobs we do.

Open discussion of the issue and recognition and care from management may help people recognise when they are unable to cope.

Certain industries understand the likely need for a high degree of mental health support – which is provided with varying degrees of success. But the recognition is there.

It’s time for the creative industries to acknowledge the same.

Helen Forbes is business development director at Good

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