Creativity > fear: How New Zealand's mental health problem is affecting the creative industries
When the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report was released in December last year, it painted a grim picture. “New Zealand is experiencing a rising tide of mental distress and addiction,” it said. “The cost of poor mental wellbeing and addiction is high. It is a high cost to individuals, families and whānau, businesses and organisations, communities, government and the country as a whole.” While the spotlight has been shone on specific demographics, one sector that is also toiling under pressure is our creative industries. We all know the squeeze of creative work well: late nights, long hours, client demands, unrealistic deadlines, impostor syndrome, self-criticism. This, coupled with the sensitive disposition creative people tend to have, often creates an environment where mental health issues can flourish.
We all know the tale of the tortured artist, where the path to creativity must be paved by a form of mania or deep depression. This stereotype goes as far back as the ancient Greeks, who believed that madness was a state of other-worldliness that could originate from two sources: the divine or the demonic.
Demonic madness was considered a negative state, and its symptoms were likely quite similar to various mental conditions today. But a slight variation on this – divine madness – was considered a positive and was most likely similar to our concept of being in a flow state, where creativity is heightened.
This idea has been perpetuated by the creative industries being strewn with high-profile mental health struggles in more recent years, suggesting these problems are a common companion to creative beings.
From Vincent Van Gogh famously cutting off his ear after an argument with his friend and committing suicide two years later in 1890, to writer Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven in 1963, to the shocking suicides of fashion designers Alexander McQueen in 2010 and Kate Spade in 2018. Closer to home, New Zealand experienced heartbreak when TVNZ journalist and presenter Greg Boyed took his own life last year.
But while the tragic struggles of artists are well publicised, psychologists have been hesitant to draw too much of a link between creativity and mental health as they’re wary of romanticising suffering as a way to achieve something extraordinary.
"It's a constant state of anxiety which I think has become the norm in our industry." - Jim Antonopoulos
Even Van Gogh wasn’t a cheerleader for his own manic depression making him a creative genius. In one of his last letters, he was wistful for what he could have achieved if he didn’t have to battle his condition. “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done,” he wrote.
The same sensitive personalities are likely to be found in every sector – from law to finance – they just are likely to be less widely reported on. However, what is unique about the creative industries is that vulnerability, risk-taking and unique ways of thinking are often rewarded in work, rather than suppressed, while the high-stress work environment of modern-day creatives can be conducive for negative mental health.
Naomi Arnold is a freelance journalist who recently collated more than 30 essays from New Zealand writers for the book, Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety. She says the idea for Headlands was sparked when she realised how of her friends who were writers also happened to live with anxiety.
However, she doesn’t buy into the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype. She says creatives tend to have traits that make them feel and understand more about the world around them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re prone to dark moods.
“I don’t like labelling creative people as necessarily angsty – my now-husband's GP told him. ‘You just have a creative personality’ when he described his terrible downs and I’ll be eternally pissed off about that,” Arnold says.
“However, I do think many people who are drawn towards creative expression naturally have a deep sense of empathy, social responsibility, conscientiousness and intuition, which makes them care a lot about human connection, worry more about what other people are feeling or thinking, and worry about the world more than others.”
Source: The 2018 Mental Health & Creative Industry Report
Lennie Galloway is one half of an intermediate creative team at advertising agency FCB New Zealand that’s done work for The Lowdown, a website to help young New Zealanders recognise and understand depression or anxiety and the award-winning anti-bullying book, Oat The Goat. She says being a creative means you naturally deal with emotions like self-doubt and stress, and a pre-existing mental condition on top of that can make for a tricky time.
“Early on, a therapist told me most of his patients work in advertising, and that I shouldn’t get into the industry if I’m already anxious,” she says. “That gave me a surge of panic on top of the existing panic – but I just smiled and said ‘Too late, mate.’ To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t listen.”
The observations of a therapist were also what kickstarted research into this very subject across the ditch. The founder of Tank, a Melbourne-based creative agency, Jim Antonopoulos, was inspired to dig deeper into the link between the creative sectors and mental health after an Auckland-based psychologist told him at a dinner party that her main clientele was creative professionals. He says he was not surprised at this revelation in the slightest.
“It made complete sense,” Antonopoulos says. “Our industry lives in a constant state of anxiety. I meet so many young creatives who are seeking approval and validation of their creative work. I meet so many business owners who are wired and stressed to the hilt – worn down by the constant, daily hustle.
“I'm guilty of it too at times. Staring at my phone, constantly waiting, waiting, waiting. Or thinking, thinking, thinking. It's a constant state of anxiety which I think has become the norm in our industry. I've met designers who brag that they work late and on the flipside, shy away from constructive feedback of their work because they've spent their all on it. It's a vicious cycle.”
Off the back of this, the Tank team collated and released the 2018 Mental Health & Creative Industry Report last year. The survey was filled out by 358 creatives in eight countries, including New Zealand.
Naomi Arnold and Jim Antonopoulos
The findings? Only 50 per cent of respondents said they were doing okay, while interestingly, the single word that appeared the most in responses was ‘fear’. As well as this, when asked about the current state of conversation and support around mental health issues from the industry (on a scale of zero being no conversation and 10 being amazing) the average answer was a meagre 3.4, while the most common age that people realised that their work was impacting on their mental health was the age they’d first enter the industry – 20 to 29 (60 per cent).
"Our industry lives in a constant state of anxiety. I meet so many young creatives who are seeking approval and validation of their creative work. I meet so many business owners who are wired and stressed to the hilt – worn down by the constant, daily hustle."- Jim Antonopoulos
This echoes what Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) CEO Cathy Veninga has observed in her work with University students. She says herself and other educators have found design students tend to be increasingly anxious and risk-averse in their work, and she’s had many a discussion with them about why this is.
“There was deep anxiety about whether their career or what they were learning at school would exist and what they were doing would be relevant, given the rapidness of change in the global community, and also how websites such as Behance set them up to feel like they couldn’t meet that standard,” Veninga says.
“They do feel that social media influences the feeling of whether they are successful or not, but this went deeper than just social media – it was fraught with the norms of human life. For me, to hear that they had little confidence in their own design style, voice and output was quite sad, because designers culturally assist in change and solutions around issues, and we need designers to be brave and take those risks, be confident in these solutions.”
DINZ CEO Cathy Veninga
However, she emphasises that mental health issues are increasingly common across the board, as global issues like climate change, job security and increasing living costs are adding stress to people’s lives at whatever stage they’re at.
“There’s such an increase in speed and so much pressure in people’s lives and so much expectation on so many levels, I think it’s a big issue – a global issue,” Veninga says.
This story was first published by our friends at Idealog as part 1 of a mini-series on mental health. The next article 'Creativity < Hope' will look at the solutions the creative industries are coming up with to tackle New Zealand's mental health problem.