In my research and my work with musicians, I often ask: ‘what do you love about leading a creative life?’ People will usually tell me of their love of their creative field, the joy of conjuring something from nothing, the craic and camaraderie they enjoy with others, and a sense that there’s nothing they would rather be doing. Sometimes the strength of that connection and calling to be creative is so strong that they will simply respond, ‘how could I be anything else?’
From a psychological point of view, the answers people give map very neatly onto what we know helps people to thrive and feel well. Positive psychology emphasises the importance of meaning and purpose in life, opportunity for creativity, mastery, autonomy and self-expression, and the quality of relationships as key components of ‘the good life’. These elements significantly contribute to mental wellbeing. We see that, in fact, some people engaged in creative careers score significantly higher than the general population on factors like relationships, meaning and positive emotion.
At the same time, numerous studies have highlighted serious barriers to mental health and wellbeing in the creative industries, even prior to the pandemic. A study commissioned by Entertainment Assist found bleak indicators of distress and mental ill health. For example, higher rates of suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. These challenges co-exist with the positivity felt by creative people – it is both an industry that grants opportunity for tremendous good feeling while also being rife with structural and occupational issues that deplete our mental reserves.
Often, we approach the topic from the point of view of a link between creativity and mental ill health, and this is a well-worn path. From ancient Greek philosophers, to Freud, to contemporary psychopathological research, the prevailing discourse is that creativity and mental distress go hand-in-hand. However, there is also an abundant evidence base which shows that job precarity, unemployment and financial strain wreak havoc on mental health. Contending with the gig economy, financial worries, and a lack of safety net contribute to stress for many creative professionals that is unfavourable to wellbeing.
Musician and Psychotherapist Aoife Ruth
COVID-19 and the Creativity Crisis
Prior to Covid-19, the situation for many creative professionals was that they were in a career that certainly had its struggles but these were largely offset by all the positives of leading a creative life. ‘Making it’ or making a living was challenging, but the relationships, meaning, and fun of being creative kept the show on the road – quite literally in many cases. Most people working in the creative industries learned to take the rough with the smooth and navigate the hard knocks by staying connected to the positives and in doing so, regularly show tremendous resilience.
Covid-19 has exacerbated the occupational cracks and financial stressors that already existed (and actually we see the widening of existing cracks in every sector of society). If making a living was hard before, it is now next to impossible for many in an industry that has been on pause for over a year. What is so unique – and devastating – is that the opportunity to enjoy the positives has also been severely affected. The things that were supporting resilience and wellbeing in the face of occupational challenges have been greatly reduced, and removed in many cases (particularly for those in the performing arts). If you were to imagine Covid-19 as an army advancing on our mental health, you could see it as a pincer movement – make the hard stuff harder, and at the same time remove all the supports.
Actively Improving Mental Health
There is – rightly – a concern about the wellbeing and mental health of people in the creative industries during the pandemic and often I’m asked to contribute suggestions and tips for people on what to do to look after their mental health.
One thing I often hear from creative people who go to therapy is that the therapist told them to stop doing aspects of their job, such as reducing touring, getting better sleep, and spending time with loved ones. This is sound advice to reduce instability – remove the challenges and increase the good stuff in order to better mental health. Normally, it is also completely impractical because it is part and parcel of the career, while also being the vehicle for many of the positives that people experience in their creative endeavours. Therefore in ‘normal times’ it makes more sense to approach creatives’ mental health with a resilience mindset: to support people to absorb adversity, adapt to it, and keep moving forward.
But one year into the pandemic, and one year into this crisis/stress response, it actually makes more sense to reverse this. I don’t believe it’s the time to just ask people to keep absorbing adversity by being ‘resilient’ ad nauseum. Now is the time to try and reduce or remove the stressors affecting us and take practical steps to improving mental health. This might mean being attuned to our inner talk – are we beating ourselves up about the things we ‘should’ be doing? And really, do we need to do these things? Can we carve out some time and space to do what sustains us instead?
I started this blog by stating the reasons people tell me they love leading a creative life. In the good times those things sustain us, but now I think they also provide the blueprint for what we need to feel in order to survive this crisis. Covid-19 has shook our resolve to live creatively. It has made it practically more difficult to do on every level. But it won’t always be this way. We will get through this crisis and I encourage everyone leading a creative life to reaffirm and recommit to that purpose. Plan what you are going to do when this is over. Look forward to it. Remember the feelings that being creative give you.
Viktor Frankl, quoting Nietzsche, said that ‘those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how''. I think remembering the ‘why’ of being creative is probably the most powerful tool we have to see us through.