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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Mental Demons Afflict The Creative

Marah Alindogan, Danica Ceballos, Priyanka Deo, Hillary Jackson, Signe Larsen, Mary Grace Montemayor, Jessica Moulite, Jordan Plaut, Carrie Poppy |
August 25, 2014 | 8:00 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporters


Success is never guaranteed, but the stakes are even higher when you’re an artist. While high profile stars like Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman gave a public face to mental health problems, many more artists and performers in Los Angeles, whose names are unknown to most, struggle with bouts of anxiety, depression, bipolar depression and the accompanying personal (and financial) challenges.

“I have no insurance, so it’s a monthly battle to pay for my doctor and pills. There have been numerous months where I’ve been unable to afford it and you can see the meltdowns documented on my many social media platforms,” said Jeffery Self, 27, an actor and writer. 

The hardships are still fresh for Self, who speaks openly about his bipolar depression, while seeing significant success with appearances in “30 Rock” and “Desperate Housewives.” 

For Self and many others, Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, is a global draw for performing artists. Aspiring creative types migrate from every corner of the world for a chance to make it big in the industry. 

“The entertainment industry [in Los Angeles] is highly, highly competitive,” said Dr. Robert Chang, a psychiatrist focusing on bipolar disorder and depression, who runs a clinic in West Hollywood. “Unless you are very strong, a lot of times you fall into depression or have anxiety.” 

Others say that the connection between the arts and mental health is not so clear.

"I don't know if those things [depression and anxiety] just come packaged with creativity or if we seek creativity out because we have those things," said Keith Lowell Jensen, a 42-year-old stand-up comedian.

Robin Williams' Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles (Hillary Jackson/Neon Tommy)
Robin Williams' Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles (Hillary Jackson/Neon Tommy)

Creative people may simply be more open and honest about their feelings, according to Mike Still, the artistic director for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre Los Angeles. “I think that more performers are emotive, and performative, and dramatic, and make big deals about stuff because that's part of our craft," said Still. "To be pretentious about it, it's like we are supposed to say what we feel and put it out there. So I think performers are more likely to demonstrate that they have anxiety than other people who might hide it more." 

An estimated 5 percent of people worldwide, and 9 percent of U.S. adults, have depressive disorders, according to the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), respectively. A 2011 Los Angeles County Department of Public Health report indicates that in Los Angeles, the figure jumps to 14 percent of the city’s overall population, or about 1.4 million people. That’s a five percent increase in depressive disorders since 1999, or about 500,000 people.

While research is lacking for why the Los Angeles numbers surpasses the national figures, studies show that of the 10 professions with the highest rates of depression, artists, entertainers and writers are the fifth most likely to have depressive disorders after nursing care and child care workers, food service staff, social workers and healthcare workers. And Los Angeles has a high percentage of workers in the performing arts.

A 2012 study by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation shows that over 160,000 of the county’s 3.3 million wage and salary workers are employed by the entertainment industry in some capacity. In addition, each type of performing art encapsulates a different set of pressures.

For dancers, major importance is placed on athletic ability and physical beauty. For actors, physical fitness and attractiveness is key. Comedians must constantly update original material and face consistent, sometimes vicious criticism. Musicians focus on mastering technique.

Research indicates that creative types are more likely to deal with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Josephine Wallace, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Los Angeles, said that people seen in the public eye who perform a creative function impose high standards on themselves. This very intense form of self-critique impacts artists in a profound way and may be directly associated with mood disorder and depression.

L.A.-based marriage and family therapist Josephine Wallace talks about why performance and mental health go hand in hand.

It is easy to find well-known examples among performers. Take comedians, for instance. Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman have all been open about their mental health issues.

Entertainers not only have to deal with personal appearance, but also must constantly cope with competitive workplaces, potentially hostile working environments and irregular paychecks. 

Sidney J. Blatt, a Ph.D. in personality development and psychopathology, writes that the highly perfectionistic and self-critical nature of performing artists make them susceptible to experiences of failure and helplessness that lead toward depression and even suicide. Science supports the connection. Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests manic thinking helps join together seemingly ridiculous ideas that spark humor.

In fact, Dr. Gordon Claridge, the Oxford professor who led the study, writes that manic thinking is common in people with bipolar disorder (previously labeled “manic depression,”) and may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections. Claridge’s study adds that comics scored above the norm on the scale for psychosis-like traits, linked to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These personality traits could help explain their ability to make people laugh.

Other experts, such as University of North Carolina professor Dr. Keith Sawyer, said the nature of being a comedian can lead to depression or other issues because that individual must constantly examine the deeper meanings of their own life and therefore life in general, which can be a weighing process.

“There is an aspect [to comedy] of ‘here are my thoughts and my pain and I’m sharing them with you, please laugh at them’ that can be a bit challenging,” Jensen said. However, going on stage can be helpful too. “I think [performing] makes [this aspect] less scary by laughing at it, and by having other people hear it and be willing to laugh at it and accept it.” 

Dancers also face challenges. According to a study performed by The Miller Healthcare Institute for Performing Artists in New York City, ballet dancers are required to be slender yet supple, while also having a high threshold for pain.

If a dancer turns professional, usually after years of training accompanied with a strict diet regimen, irregular hours along with uncomfortable physical environments become a part of life. Additionally, performance dancers are evaluated weekly or monthly by their directors, and replaced if their performances are not up to par, creating extreme commutativity and anxiety for the dancers.

Dr. Chang said that in Los Angeles, aspiring performing artists receive a lot rejections, and there is a high intensity of “trying and failing.”

Ballet dancer Jennifer Fox can relate. “I think dancers inherently have a weird feeling about their bodies, constantly critiquing themselves,” she said. “There is some depression because...auditioning is extremely stressful and it takes a really big toll on people’s mental health...because there is a lot of rejection.”

Like Fox, aerialist Danielle Cloutier also has dealt with her share of mental health issues. She, however, turned to aerial lyra dance as therapy to successfully bring her depression under control. “For me, I think that the physical movement of being active helps so you’re not just laying there and being depressed.” 

Anxiety, another common diagnosis among writers, dancers and musicians, comes with a number of associated issues including panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and specific phobias, including social phobia.

The most widely studied symptoms in performers have been those related to performance anxiety and can vary from performance tension, to career stress, to stage fright. In a related study conducted on rock musicians, 90 percent reported that they have some type of anxiety. 

The increased attention to these issues may help make creative professionals feel less alone. 

“I think [mental health issues] are growing more and more visible every day. I think we have to be open about it,” said Self. “We reveal so much of ourselves as writers or performers. And the dark, the underbelly, has to come up for air too, or else it can eat us whole.” 

Located in a globally recognized talent and entertainment city, performers in Los Angeles constantly cope with highly competitive audition numbers and new talent threatening their employment.

The pressure can be so great that performers fear “coming out” about their mental health challenges because they might lose job opportunities. One stand-up comedian, who has anxiety and depression, spoke to us on condition of anonymity so that her job prospects would not be threatened.

In intimate interview with one stand-up comedian who faces depression and anxiety every day.

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is characterized by uncontrollable dramatic mood swings that hamper a person’s ability to function. Behavior during both manic and depressive periods can be so disruptive that performers may not be able to function properly in work and/or personal situations.

The Journal of Psychiatry marks bipolar disorder as one of the most common in the entertainment industry. Famous entertainers who are openly dealing with bipolar disorder include actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, singer Demi Lovato and rapper DMX. Many performing artists keep their struggles private. In reality, millions in Los Angeles smile wide for the cameras, but face similar challenges behind closed doors. 

As Self put it, “Life is f*****g tough sometimes, even when it’s good. [Performers need] to remember they’re not so alone. And that someone within mere feet of them is probably feeling just as alone as they are. And to keep pushing.” 


This multi-media story was produced in collaboration with the 2014-2015 M.S. Graduate Program at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.

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