Can Creativity Destroy the Mind? – Mental Health and the Creative Industry

5 July 2019. Thoughts in Industry by

“What is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers kind of don’t do?”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.

In Africa, mental health has received little attention and has been allocated scant resources when compared to physical illnesses, unemployment, food security, education, and water sanitation. As South Africa observes Mental Illness Awareness Month in July, we felt it appropriate to look at mental health in the creative industry.

A critical aspect of the current zeitgeist has been conversations around mental health and mental illness. What is interesting, and rather perplexing, is the fact that while these conversations are pervasive—and more people are sharing openly about their struggles—there is still so much stigma attached to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar, to highlight but a few that besiege many people, including Africans. In the context of Africa, mental illness is seen as something that is “un-African.” Kenyan humour writer Ted Malanda once wrote that he doesn’t believe that illnesses such as depression are real, never mind African. “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that depression is an illness…In fact, it is such a non-issue that African languages never bothered to create a word for it,” said the writer, whose sentiments are so reflective of the insidious attitudes most African societies have regarding mental illness. According to a Forbes article lamenting the state of and attitudes around mental health in Africa, “Mental illness is the most neglected issue in the developing world.” (Banis, 2019).  

Undone by creative brilliance

Mental conditions are neither biased nor discriminatory; anyone, regardless of ethnicity, social status, gender identity, creed, sexual orientation or profession, can suffer from a mental condition. However, it has been found that those in the creative industries suffer the most; the world has lost creative geniuses such as Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Don Cornelius, of Soul Train fame. South Africa has also lost many of its prolific creatives to suicide; our losses include HHP (award-winning rapper), SAFTA-award-winner Shoki Mokgapa, renowned author Sello Duiker and, more recently, singer Nichume Siwundla. 

While these conversations are pervasive, there is still so much stigma attached to mental illnesses.

This notion of the psychologically tormented creative mind is more than a mere trope—it is a sad and disconcerting reality that requires much attention from companies in the creative industry and society at large. Creatives are known for being tortured souls who have been undone by their calling. The pressure to create grows deeper and stronger, the more works a creative produces and the more they become known for their excellence. The creative process is often anxiety-inducing and capricious; there are days when ideas are flowing freely and softly, filling the room like fireflies against a midnight blue sky, then there are days when your brain is a reluctant bystander in your pursuit of creative expression; it is on the latter days that creatives experience the most angst and end up questioning whether they are actual creatives or imposters who pretended to be something they were not. 

Crippling self-doubt and imposter syndrome are afflictions with which many musicians, artists, designers and writers are familiar; many in the creative industry will attest to the agony they beget. Sadly, data exists that shows that the creative industry reports more suicides than other sectors. The pressure to constantly produce outstanding work continually, and the concomitant anxiety, weighs heavy on the creative’s mind, making little room for failure or imperfection. 

The creative process is often anxiety-inducing and capricious

Besides being triggered by endless and frantic creative efforts, mental health conditions already exist within the life of the creative, and most creatives use their creativity to tell their stories or as an impetus for creating more works. Design Indaba Emerging Creatives 2018 alumnus and Cape Town filmmaker Kristen van Niekerk finds that creative expression helps her cope with living with anxiety and depression. “I do think that design and art can impact those who struggle with mental illness in a more positive way or at least create a safer environment.” It just becomes difficult when the mental illness flares up, rendering her incapable of producing as much work as she’s used to producing. “I especially struggle with the fact that when I am anxious or depressed, I cannot do anything yet I get frustrated because the industry moves forward regardless and that makes me feel like I’m not good enough.” Therein lies the big conundrum of being in the creative industry and living with mental illness: we experience great angst from not being able to produce when our mental health is hanging by a thread and that angst is further exacerbated by the fact that our creativity is what pays our bills. Moreover, because our work is always being created for an audience, we have to prepare ourselves for rejection.  

Separating the self from the work

In her TED talk on the subject of one’s creative genius, award-winning writer Elizabeth Gilbert (well-known for her book Eat, Pray, Love) describes her relationship with writing as being her “great lifelong love and fascination.” It is almost indubitable that many of us in the creative industry can relate to having an all-consuming passion for the work that we do, mostly because it comes from a very deep place within us—and that’s what sets apart careers in the creative industry from other vocational pursuits. For those of us in the creative industry, the work we do is more than just our profession. For the artist, writer, musician, graphic designer or art director, their creativity is tied to their identity; it is something that is inextricably bound to who they are. 

In her talk, Elizabeth says something that will have any creative nodding their head in vehement agreement: “I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed…Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?”

As creatives, we have to be intentional about building what Elizabeth refers to as a “protective, psychological construct.” It’s important to separate ourselves from the work that we do and how people respond to it. As a creative, you must take a moment to step back and say: “I’m a human being who creates, and sometimes I get paid for it. I love what I do, deeply, but my entire being doesn’t rest on that which I can do, even when I do it brilliantly.” This creates more room for there to be peace when you face a creative block or rejection, which is inevitable in the creative industry. 

Prioritising mental health in the creative workplace

When it comes to mental health in the creative industry, agencies and companies also have an important role to play.  Employees in this industry need to be deliberate about initiating programmes that are aimed at providing mental health education, to help their staff identify when it is time to seek professional help or take a break. Moreover, agencies need to put in place systems that will help creatives cope with the workload and hectic deadlines in a manner that will help creatives manage their inner world while still producing exceptional work. 

You’re not as good as your last great, pitch-winning idea.

Here is a public service announcement to creatives out there: you’re not as good as your last great, pitch-winning idea neither is your creative ability determined by those few moments when you couldn’t come up with that striking idea, worthy of a Loerie. We need to learn to strive for excellence in all areas of our lives. As we work towards consistently producing work that will garner vast adulation and amass scores of accolades, we need to put that same kind of energy into taking care of our mental health; if anything, this will add to the quality of our creative ideas and the work that flows from them will be superb as well. As noted by the late Maya Angelou: “You can’t use up creativity; the more you use, the more you have.”

Emergency Contact Details
If you or a loved one are in crisis, please contact the numbers below. 

Suicide Crisis Line: 0800-567-567
SADAG Mental Health Line:011-234-4837
Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour: 0861-435-787


Cover art design by Satta Design.

Banis, D. (2019). Mental Illness Is The Most Neglected Health Problem In The Developing World. Retrieved from

Finch, F (2018). The link between mental health and creativity. Retrieved from 

Gberie, L (2017). Mental illness: Invisible but devastating. Retrieved from 

Gilbert, E. (2009).  Your Elusive Creative Genious [Video file]. Retrieved from 

Rudgard, O. (2017). ‘Tortured geniuses’ more likely to commit suicide, study finds. Retrieved from 


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