Why Black Women Creatives Must Protect Their Mental Health


I’ve been a writer since I was in elementary school. My grandmother’s suicide a month before my 9th birthday left my mother and I both sad and confused. I wanted to help my mom but I didn’t know what I could say or do that would be comforting. After all, I was still trying to wrap my head around the concept of death myself.

It was the fall of fourth grade and we were doing a unit of poetry in Mrs. Hill’s language arts class. We read a poem about snowflakes falling. It was metaphorical and sweet and though I was moved by it, I kept thinking that I could do better. One day after school, I was looking out my bedroom window at the dying leaves twisting down from the trees and I thought of my grandmother. I thought of her withering like the autumn leaves. I thought of what she might say about her death to ease my mother’s pain. Then I put my thoughts into a poem.

In the years that passed I continued to write poetry and short stories to help me process and express my feelings. As a writer, I do my best work when I am moved to extremes—blissfully happy or painfully sad. I write about the rough edges of life; falling from great heights, struggling to get out of the depths. I either don’t write at all, or write all night long, unable to sleep because I have so many words in my head fighting to get out. Unfortunately, those times are not at all consistent or predictable.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was in college. My first depressive episode was during my junior year. That year, I broke up with my high school sweetheart, my parents divorced, I began working full-time in addition to being a full-time student in order to support myself, my dad remarried, and then my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Needless to say, I was a bit down. Yet, I never thought anything of it, because although I was exceptionally sad, I had a reason to be. Clinical depression was, in my mind, when you are sad for no good reason. Depression is when everything in your life is going well and yet you still feel despondent and hopeless. As far as I could see, I didn’t have depression—I just had a lot of problems.

Every couple of years or so, all the problems—the stress and the disappointments—would build up and I would get extremely depressed for a few weeks or months. But I always had a reason to be upset, and I always snapped out of it after a while. I did admit that I was more upset than seemed normal or necessary. I just thought it was my dramatic flair. I told myself that my intense lows were all part of being an observant, self-aware, keenly emotional artist. My moods fueled my creativity. My artistry demanded a certain level of sensitivity. Besides, I had my writing to help me get through the tough times.

The archetype of the mad genius, which I was ascribing to, has been around for as long as artists have been creating, it seems. Aristotle said, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” I never thought of myself as depressed. I merely thought I had an “artistic sensibility.” As it turns out, I wasn’t completely wrong.

Psychologists have explored the link between creativity and mental health for decades. According to an article published by CNN entitled, The Dark Side of Creativity: Depression + Anxiety x Madness = Genius, “These studies found that creatives had an unusually high number of mood disorders. Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill all appeared to suffer from clinical depression. So too did Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath famously took her own life by sticking her head in an oven while her two children slept.” The article also mentions famous painters such as Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe who produced incredible works of art while living with depression, bipolar disorder, or other undiagnosed mental health disorders.

There are various reasons for this link, including most creative people’s “psychological desire to be better, to be stronger, to reflect on where we’ve made mistakes, and to find ways to improve ourselves overall.” Tanner Christensen of Creative Something writes:

… countless psychologists and psychiatrists tend to agree that major depression is amplified in those who tend to ruminate on their thoughts. Creatives naturally tend to think more, and think about their very thoughts too. When we ruminate, however, our brains are naturally drawn to things that are vital to our health. Pain and suffering are such immense experiences, even if they’re short lived, that those who ruminate tend to loop through those painful experiences more often than those who don’t… re-playing events over and over again to better understand them. A result of focusing on these thoughts then, according to Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, is immense depression or a feeling of hopelessness.

This is especially important to note for creative black women because, according to a Huffington Post article based on data produced by the Center for Disease Control in 2011, out of the 19 million Americans affected by depression, “Women (4 percent versus 2.7 percent of men) and African-Americans (4 percent) are significantly more likely to report major depression than Whites (3.1 percent).

BlackWomensHealth.com reports that the depression rate of African-American women is almost 50% higher than that of white women. Unfortunately, the Huffington Post also reported that the CDC also finds that just 7.6 percent of African-Americans sought treatment for depression compared to 13.6 percent of the general population in 2011.

Eventually, I discovered that as a creative black woman that writing wasn’t always enough to change my mood. When I was 29, I fell into a depression so deep that I began to worry that I was going to suffer the same fate as my grandmother. I knew I had to seek help. I began seeing a therapist and began taking prescription medication.

The intersections of mental health and creativity are unique for Black women, as women from across the Diaspora are often discouraged from investing in our psychological health and wellbeing. Add to this the fact that so many of us assume creativity means we must suffer from mental health issues, and it can be difficult for us to seek help. While there is definitely a link between depression, creativity, and emotional sensitivity that may add a depth to our artistic process, it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our wellbeing and happiness to create good work.

At first, I was worried that the medication would dull my personality and make me numb so that I couldn’t feel. But in fact it only made my feelings more manageable. Managing my depression did not stifle my creativity, it merely helped me to focus my creative endeavors and be more productive in all aspects of my life.

And my writing has never been better.

Eboni Rafus is a regular contributor at For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @EboniRafus

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