Depression can be a profoundly damaging and disrupting condition, preventing us from living fully and realizing our talents. We may need to get help for treating depression, but a number of people say the experience has had value for them.
Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, referring to her bipolar disorder (which she controls with medication), has said, "I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and have been more loved... laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters."
Though only a fraction of people experience bipolar or other severe forms of depression that require medical intervention, many of us experience some kind of mood disorder: almost 10 percent of adults, according to The National Institute of Mental Health.
But many people use the term depression very loosely, as in "I am so depressed that Danny is gone from American Idol." That may be distressing, but it is not depression.
Some writers think many psychiatrists have been too willing to prescribe antidepressants for people who are just coping with the aftermath of a recent emotional blow, such as a divorce or job loss.
While it is natural to want to escape emotional or spiritual distress, including depression, there are many people who may be considered melancholics or depressives who make contributions to the arts, and may reasonably flee from taking medications to suppress their feelings.
Psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer (author of Listening to Prozac) wrote, "Much of what we value - our understanding of beauty, profundity, even romance - has been crafted by melancholics. Today, in a time when people demand serenity as if it were the human condition, one cheer for melancholy hardly seems excessive." [From "Why I'm in Favor of Sadness" Self magazine, July, 2001]
But Dr. Kramer also wrote the book "Against Depression" and thinks it is "a disease of extraordinary magnitude," and "the major scourge of humankind" which should be treated as effectively as possible.
Many writers and other artists do have higher levels of depression than other groups of people. Can it be at all helpful?
Artist Caroline Bertorelli is quoted in the book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression: "I get depressed quite regularly and often. It used to distress and frustrate me that I have such a tendency. But as I grow older, I see my depression as a valuable time for introspection and deep thinking about life."
In our interview, I asked the author of the book, psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, if he finds that others are able to experience depression as something with positive meaning and value.
Dr. Maisel replied, "Many artists try. I believe that it serves us best to learn how to reduce or eliminate both depression and anxiety from our lives, as I do not hold them as useful in any way. I think that pain is overrated."
But he also pointed out, creative people can become depleted after working on a creative project, and the blues may strike if they aren't making sufficient meaning in their work or their lives.
That may be one of the real values to us of depression: using it as a signal that we need to be more engaged with our values and in finding and making meaning, or looking more deeply at what is not working right in our life.