On Depression

Peter Kramer, whose NYT magazine article caught a lot of attention a few weeks ago, is profiled over at the Boston Globe:

Kramer, professor of psychiatry at Brown University, distinguishes depression from transitory moodiness. True depression usually includes symptoms such as sleeplessness, eating problems, intractable sadness and feelings of worthlessness, paralysis of the will, and often suicidality. Almost everyone experiences sadness, self-doubt, or melancholy sometimes, but the nondepressed person has what Kramer calls ”resilience” — he or she can get back on an even keel without damage. …He was repeatedly asked, during public appearances for ”Listening to Prozac”: ”What if van Gogh had taken Prozac?” — as if the positive benefits of mental illness in an artist might justify its terrors. After years of immersion in the depression of his patients, he has no patience with those ideas. …Kramer says the excuse-making and toleration largely comes from ”people who have not suffered major depression. But even in those who have,” he said, ”there is worry that [without it] one would not be driven enough or would not struggle enough. But we don’t make that argument about other diseases.”

I don’t believe depression has positive benefits in an artist. You can write or paint because of the pain you experienced, in the past, and you don’t need to be wanting to kill yourself, miserable and cripplingly sad to do it in the present. In fact, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that if Van Gogh hadn’t had depression, if he hadn’t died in his thirties, he would have kept on working, kept making paintings more amazing, more breathtaking than the ones we have left. It’s this attitude- that the artist needs his depression- which can lead to his downfall, very similar to a comedian not thinking he could be funny if he weren’t drunk. Pretty soon, the comedian thinks he’s not funny, the alcohol is. That’s what ends up happening with depressed artists sometimes: the artist gives her depression the credit for her art. And that’s just, well… sad.

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