Van Gogh cut off his ear. The rock star "suicide age" is 27. Are artsy people destined to be unhappy? Not necessarily – but there is evidence of a connection as early as adolescence.
A recent study found that teens who were more involved in arts, drama or music after school had higher symptoms of depression. The link was only true for teens with above-average memory skills.
However, the study did not show that involvement in the arts causes depression. It also didn't show that teens have to be depressed to be artistic.
The study, led by Laura N. Young, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Boston College, used data from five different years in the U.S. Longitudinal Survey of Youth (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010). The 2,482 students included in the survey were all 15 or 16 years old, and slightly over half were white (27 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic).
The students answered questions about how often they were involved in extracurricular activities related to music, singing, drama, painting or drawing as well as questions about involvement in sports or physical activities.
The teens were also asked how often they experienced certain symptoms of depression, including having low energy or a poor appetite, having difficulty sleeping or concentrating or feeling sad.
An analysis of their responses showed that teens who were more involved in the arts had slightly higher scores on the depression scale. The depression scale used had a range of 0 to 21. Teens who participate in the arts had an average score of 4.57, and those who were not involved in artsy activities had an average score of 3.93.
Neither of these averages is high enough to indicate depression, and the association between arts and depression symptoms was only true for teens who scored over the average on memory skills tests.
The researchers found that each additional point a student scored on the depression scale translated into a 27 percent higher likelihood of being involved in the arts.
"This is not to say that depression is a necessary condition for either a teen or an adult to become an artist, nor are we showing that participating in the arts leads to mental illness," Young said in a release about the study.
She said they explored this possible connection in children because other research showed a link between depression and artistic involvement in adults. The researchers do not know the reason for the connection, but they proposed one possibility based on the higher memory findings.
They said it's possible that individuals drawn to the arts might perceive more about their surroundings. This extra information about the world they are noticing could help with artistic pursuits, but it could also overwhelm the brain a little bit and add some depression.
They also said it's possible that introverts are more attracted to artistic activities and may be more likely to be depressed. Both of these are just possible theories. The research did not show that either was definitely the case.
"Clearly depressive symptoms are not a necessary condition for involvement in the arts in adolescence or for becoming an eminent artist," the authors wrote. But understanding why the connection is there is important, they added.
The study was published November 12 in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Information regarding funding or disclosures was unavailable in the article
Arthur H. Belmont, LMFT
has over 20 years of experience working with children, teens and adults who are struggling with relational, emotional or behavioral issues.