Is the creative mind more likely to experience issues with mental health?

Is the creative mind more likely to experience issues with mental health?

I genuinely don’t know for sure whether creative personalities are more prone to mental health problems than people in any other part of the industry.

Every great creative department I’ve ever worked in has been a smorgasbord of very different characters - introverts, extroverts, the bullish, the mouse like, council estate lads and Oxbridge women - so it’s really hard to deconstruct the common personality traits that might lead to mental health issues or not.

But when you analyse the fundamentals of a career as an advertising creative (the only creative role I can speak of with any genuine authority), it’s not an enormous stretch to think that this career choice might take its toll on even the ‘strongest’ personality, whatever kind of personality it is.

So, what might predispose creative people to a greater chance of facing mental health problems than people in other disciplines? I suppose the thing to remember about the role of a creative is that it’s almost entirely based around two things, neither of which scream mental wellness - rejection and resilience.

First, let’s talk about rejection.

From day one at ad college, through to the final pitch presentation for that multi-million-pound account, every interaction of your career, every idea that comes out of your head, is critiqued with a forensic eye for whether it’s right or wrong - except there is no right or wrong (the idea needing to be ‘on brief’ and ‘on brand’ aside). 

Creative work is entirely subjective. 

Yet people attempt to appraise it in a completely binary way. 

Brutally, scientifically - like they’re crunching numbers that are spewing out of a computer, not thoughts that are falling awkwardly out of someone’s head. 

Creative people are therefore conditioned from day one to accept criticism and rejection of their work, that in most other roles in our industry (and literally any role in any other industry), would have the recipient speed-dialling HR faster than you can say “personal vendetta”. And because having ideas “is their job” and “we can always go again”, it’s very easy to see how the most important people in our industry can be reduced to the human equivalent of the spring that pushes the mincemeat out of the artisanal sausage machine, rather than the chef who came up with the recipe in the first place (I don’t have even the slightest rudimentary knowledge of butchery but you get the analogy). 

Which can likely lead to feeling undervalued, pressured and, not to put too wanky a point on it, a degree of existential malaise. And maybe then you’re only one more shredded idea away from anxiety and depression.

Which leads neatly on to resilience.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the best creatives’ work is imbued with a bit of their personality.

It’s no coincidence that the late, incredibly great Paul Silburn made funny ad after funny ad. 

He was a genuinely funny bloke. And if the theory that we bring a bit of ourselves to our creative ideas holds, it can’t be much of a stretch to imagine that the constant rejection of those ideas (that even the greatest, most-awarded creative people face on a daily basis) might start to feel like personal rejection as much as professional. 

So, if you’re facing rejection on the regular (I think that’s what the young people say) and it’s starting to feel personal, you have to have fairly thick skin to keep going day after day after day (it’s a bit like kicking a dog in the evening and then expecting it to gleefully chase a stick the next day). 

But that is literally the job. For thirty-odd years. I often think that the youthfully skewed makeup of the average creative department is not solely a symptom of systemic ageism (definitely a problem) but also the result of the “fuck this shit, I’ve had enough” factor.

We’ve all encountered creatives who appear too belligerent, or say nothing and look sullen in the whole team zoom review, or have three drinks and corner the CEO at the summer party and tell them what’s wrong with the industry. Maybe they’re not arseholes. Maybe they’re tired and broken and undervalued. Maybe they feel like a bit of themselves is being chipped away. Another recipe for a decline in mental health (to conclude the tenuous sausage analogy with a culinary reference).

But here’s the thing. There’s a third fundamental of being a creative that sits alongside rejection and resilience (irritatingly it doesn’t begin with an ‘r’). It’s called ‘blind optimism’. 

It’s the unwavering belief that the things you think up COULD be brilliant. And every creative person has it. Every creative team has had a moment when they look at the various ideas they have on the table for various clients and say 'Christ, if all this gets made, we’re laughing'. And it keeps you going. Because you know (or hope if you’re just starting out) that when the stars align and great stuff gets made, it’s one of the greatest jobs in the world.

What we leaders need to remember is that we must look after the people who come up with the stuff that transforms our clients’ (and therefore our agencies’) fortunes, and keep them well, motivated and inspired. 

It’s not pandering to the fragility of some wannabe artists. It’s realising that until the data and the bots and the accountants take over, our industry’s output depends on the mental wellness of a bunch of human beings.

And without their brilliant ideas fuelling our industry’s success, all our mental wellbeing would be at risk.

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