There is an old film school metajoke: film student creates “serious” French New Wave-inspired student film about death or dying. Hell, even I did it (although my film was more Bergman-inspired). But a creative person’s obsession with death is more true-to-life than we care to acknowledge.
Most of us awoke yesterday to hear that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide while in France. Earlier this week, Kate Spade hung herself in New York. And a few days ago, the CDC announced a surprising 30 percent increase in suicide rates since 1999. Both Spade and Bourdain were in well-coveted positions. While Spade was one of the top handbag designers in the world, Bourdain was a chef who inspired a new generation of Instagram jet-setting and globe-trotting influencers. But both of them felt compelled to end their lives. Where do we go from here? The only place we can go. It’s time we treat depression, mental illness, and suicide among creative professionals as a pandemic.
Why am I focusing on creative professionals’ mental health, when mental health seems to be a problem across all occupations? Well, not only am I a creative professional, but so were Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. And so were Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, George Reeves, Tony Scott, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Johnny Ace, Robin Williams, Don Cornelius, and Leslie Cheung. Some occupations are more prone to suicide than others, usually high-stress, high-achieving careers. Creative people are pressured to keep performing for others, oftentimes placing themselves in a continuous loop of rejection and acceptance. Most creative people are well-aware of their shortcomings. Those shortcomings build over time to self-doubt, existential dread, and loneliness in thoughts. Ultimately, many creatives cave under the pressure and take their own lives as a result.
There is nothing glamorous about the tortured, starving, alcoholic genius. No artist actually wants to be Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, or Mozart. But very few of us can escape the stereotype. Especially in this day and age, where there are so many distractions, that monetizing your craft is both hard and easy. It’s easy because you can self-promote via social media. But it’s hard because you are suddenly competing with the latest social media challenge or hashtag. And when your new painting is competing with someone’s dog for “likes,” that can be demoralizing. Add on constantly changing social media algorithms, and you have YouTube content creators, Vimeo filmmakers, and Instagram artists in a race to the bottom.
“Who cares?” you say. “We all know social media is a vapid waste of time. There are even folks who make vague posts just for the attention!” That is true, but how well do you know your friends? For most artists living in 2018, social media is a necessity. It’s how our work gets shared with the masses. It’s how we expand our audience beyond our local communities. It’s how we share resources and knowledge among ourselves. We may even announce upcoming shows and meet-and-greets on social media. Even for large, well-established exhibits and shows, such as The Book of Mormon, I hear about it on social media first. While social media causes social anxiety, it’s unavoidable in the modern world.
There is some evidence to suggest that creative people’s brains are just wired differently. Most creatives have a need to create, and will often neglect their own physical and mental wellbeing to do so. I’ve stayed up for hours, gone without eating, and neglected showering before while in a creative streak. I’ve down dangerous amounts of caffeine. I would even “forget” to take crucial mediation, because that would mean I would have to break to eat. I was aware how bad I was treating my body, but the mental need to create superseded all other needs for me.