50 Famous Artists & Thinkers Who Have Struggled With Depression


October 19th, 2010

One of the most wrong-headed, yet frustratingly prevailing, mindsets regarding clinical depression (and almost any other mental illness) touts that sufferers contribute nothing of value to society. Rather than seeing it as a serious medical condition, the general public insists on portraying clinical depression and similar diagnoses such as bipolar, panic and anxiety disorders as character flaws. In reality, over 20 million Americans must contend with the mental, emotional, social and — yes — physical hell every year. The majority of them don’t sit at home all day bawling; most adults with depression have to suffer in silence thanks to the overarching demonization of mental illness and psychotherapy. No matter their trigger or how long the pain lasts, only the most extreme cases are unable to consistently work hard and be productive. Some even use the depression as a springboard for creativity, wringing provocative, beautiful songs, poems, stories, philosophies and artworks out of the chaos. Not everyone on the following list lived a happy life, and many of them ended up simultaneously channeling their emotions through both constructive and destructive conduits. All they share is the fact that they still garnered respect (sometimes even money) in their respective fields. Depression may have thrown up hurdles that some could not clear, but nobody could ever label them worthless just because they suffered.

  1. Douglas Adams: Following a professional split from writing partner Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame, Douglas Adams floundered from odd job to odd job until he went home for Christmas and ended up living with his mother for a year. Therapy proved a fruitless venture, but he managed to smooth his mind out somewhat by the time he started with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  2. Woody Allen: Although his career’s edgy heat has cooled somewhat as he grows older, Woody Allen’s finest films served as a productive outlet for his depression. Wringing laughter out of the pain worked as a viable supplement to therapy.

  3. Hans Christian Andersen: The beloved storyteller grappled with depression for a number of different reasons, most notably genetics, boredom and war. He penned his timeless fairy tales as a means of channeling some of the negative emotions what plagued him, most notably “The Snow Queen.”

  4. Charles Baudelaire: As with many immensely creative people, Charles Baudelaire found solace in writing his own poetry and translating the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He passed in and out of “spleens,” or extended bouts with depression, throughout his adult life.

  5. Ingmar Bergman: Legendary film director Ingmar Bergman considered his own works too depressing to repeatedly view and even ended up hospitalized following a complete nervous breakdown. An arrest on charges of tax evasion prompted the serious condition, and though the charges were dropped he spent the rest of his life panicking over its impact on his career.

  6. William Blake: William Blake has garnered plenty of respect as a consummate writer and artist, but his brilliant works came at a price. Many came following vivid periods of hallucinations which prompted creativity, though once he spent the energy he would fall into severe melancholia.

  7. Robert Burton: In 1621, Robert Burton published “Anatomy of Melancholy” based on his experiences and observations, laying a solid foundation for later psychological inquiry into mood disorders.

  8. Raymond Chandler: One of the most iconic detective novelists channeled his cynicism and depression into the legendary fictional character Philip Marlowe. Unfortunately, he also turned to alcohol abuse and grew estranged from his wife as well.

  9. Agatha Christie: The influential mystery writer once disappeared for eleven days in 1926 and turned up under an assumed name in an English hotel. Psychiatric professionals and biographers theorize that the incident was brought about during a depressive episode culminating in either a nervous breakdown or a fugue state.

  10. Winston Churchill: These days, many people would balk at the idea of a politician with clinical depression or another mental illness, allowing prevailing stigmas to cloud their judgment as to what makes a solid leader. But Winston Churchill walked his “black dog” before, during and after his tenure as Prime Minister and still managed to pull the United Kingdom through World War II. They lost their hegemonic status in the process, but at least it wasn’t to the Nazis.

  11. Samuel Clemens: Better known by his pseudonym “Mark Twain,” the last few years of the quintessential American writer’s life were fraught with severe depression. The death of his wife and two daughters precipitated the emotional downfall.

  12. Kurt Cobain: Kurt Cobain’s grungy music captured the isolation and disillusionment of an outcast demographic looking for a voice, but his depression unfortunately also came saddled with grave substance abuse issues and suicide.

  13. Leonard Cohen: Like many other creative types plagued with depression, the legendary Leonard Cohen channeled his pain into both haunting music and reckless behavior. After finding Paxil an inadequate solution, he turned to Buddhism for peace of mind.

  14. Joseph Conrad: Throughout his life, the famed author of Heart of Darkness struggled with depression grave enough to cause physical illness. Much of it came from pressing doubts regarding his writing prowess.

  15. Calvin Coolidge: Oppressive shyness, a father absent due to political work and the death of his son all contributed to the 30th American President’s general quietness, withdrawal and depression.

  16. Ian Curtis: The frontman of legendary post-punk outlet suffered from epilepsy and insomnia, and he self-medicated through various substances and suicide attempts. The stresses of a European tour and crumbling marriage eventually led him to hang himself in 1980.

  17. Edgar Degas: One of the most influential artists of the 19th Century, Edgar Degas, began losing his eyesight around the 1880s. His depression and isolation grew exponentially with his blindness, as he could no longer perfectly capture the beauty and grace of his subjects.

  18. Charles Dickens: Some psychology professionals and biographers believe the beloved writer experienced bipolar disorder, with the depressive periods cutting into his productivity rather than fueling it.

  19. Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Later in his life, famed existentialist novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky developed a serious and destructive gambling habit in order to cope with his burgeoning depression.

  20. Nick Drake: Debates abound over whether or not folk musician Nick Drake battled bipolar disorder or clinical depression, since the two do share overlapping symptoms. A lifelong insomniac, he often isolated himself from collaborators and loved ones and self-medicated with drugs and music. Drake eventually passed from an overdose of antidepressants.

  21. T.S. Eliot: Poet and author T.S. Eliot’s wife Vivian suffered from depression and migraines, requiring plenty of attention and care from her husband. The stress of it all drove him to drink and smoke more often than he probably should have, and the writer himself eventually developed the condition as a result. It did, however, produce a few poems.

  22. William Faulkner: Battles against depression and alcoholism did not prevent the quintessential Southern Gothic, modernist writer from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. While a tragic figure, William Faulkner’s successes dispel the myth that depression equals incompetence.

  23. Michel Foucault: The heavily influential French philosopher’s depression likely stemmed from his homosexuality at a time when such things were even more stigmatized than they are today. However, it likely led to his intensive studies in the fields of psychology and sociology as well.

  24. Stephen Fry: Because society listens to celebrities much, much more than they ever will to psychological professionals, Stephen Fry has been an invaluable asset to the destigmatization mental illness in the world. He uses his position as a beloved writer and performer to encourage others with depressive disorders to seek therapy. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly manic depression), Fry has experienced suicidal behaviors, fugue states and reckless behavior as a result.

  25. Paul Gauguin: Suicide attempts and overall mental and physical malaise plagued this popular painter’s adult life, so much so he eventually abandoned his family and fled to French Polynesia when the stresses of poverty and artistic failure grew too overwhelming. Even there, though, he drank too much, contracted syphilis and ran afoul of the law and the church.

  26. Vincent van Gogh: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh formed a tumultuous friendship over their mutual creativity and mental illnesses. Theories abound from epilepsy to schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, but regardless of the source he still grappled with severe depression.

  27. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes: Francisco de Goya’s artwork reflected his bouts of depression, revolving around themes of absurdity, meaninglessness, physical torment, growing old, death and other common fears and anxieties.

  28. Ernest Hemingway: During Ernest Hemingway’s famous stint in Cuba, his lifetime of depression and alcoholism began wreaking havoc on his mind, which rendered him paranoid and disoriented until his eventual suicide.

  29. Janet Jackson: Pop star Janet Jackson’s album “The Velvet Rope” was meant as personal therapy for an extended bout with depression. Anxieties from a high-pressure childhood, a doomed marriage and creative block all filtered into producing the triple-platinum album.

  30. Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady scribe began his descent into the very bowels of depression following the disastrous opening to his play Guy Domville. However, he likely worked through these anxieties by writing comparatively more successful serials and novels. Many literary critics and psychologists believe his lifelong bachelorhood stemmed from a crippling fear of sex, which occasionally crops up in his oeuvre.

  31. Daniel Johnston: Bipolar disorder and clinical depression are not interchangeable diagnoses, but the former’s “low points” share a plethora of symptoms with the latter. Daniel Johnston funnels the delusions and frustrations of bipolar disorder into brilliant artistic and musical works that shed light on his condition.

  32. John Keats: Such was John Keats’ passion for poetry, depression and self-doubt would overcome him when he felt as if he work could never measure up to that of his contemporaries.

  33. Soren Kierkegaard: This iconic, influential existentialist philosopher was no stranger to introspection, painstakingly analyzing his own misery and making connections regarding heredity. His own father also suffered from the condition as well.

  34. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: After two months’ worth of voluntary service in the First World War, the German military was forced to discharge expressionist visionary Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for psychiatric evaluation. Journals and surviving artworks, however, reveal a life of mental turmoil and anxiety beyond the battlefield. He eventually committed suicide after the Nazi Party destroyed or confiscated most of his paintings and labeled him a “degenerate artist.”

  35. Beyonce Knowles: Following the dissolution of her R&B band Destiny’s Child, the former frontwoman spent two years in a depressive fog. She still experiences down periods wrought with self-doubt and isolation, debating whether or not therapy will prove worthwhile.

  36. Akira Kurosawa: In 1971, one of the greatest filmmakers ever to live slit his wrists and throat in an unsuccessful attempt to escape artistic failure, creative block and health problems. His physical scars healed quickly, but he spent time a few years away from the movies in quiet reflection before an inevitable (and triumphant!) return.

  37. Abraham Lincoln: Today’s general public would (metaphorically) flay Abraham Lincoln alive if they knew he battled clinical depression. Accounts from family and friends as well as the man himself reflect a melancholic figure who frequently talked of suicide and other morbid matters, but many contemporary historians and psychotherapists attribute that introspection to his political success.

  38. Gustav Mahler: Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler always exuded a moodiness, but the real torment settled in after getting married — and neither family approved. His demands for wife Alma to give up her music career understandably placed a massive strain on their relationship, and combined with the death of their young daughter and a chronic heart condition it meant some heavy emotional torment.

  39. Michelangelo: One of the Renaissance’s most prolific and popular artists is almost as infamous for his melancholic misanthropy as he is the masterful frescoes, sculptures, poems and architectural works he created.

  40. John Stuart Mill: As a young man, the significant liberal political philosopher suffered a nervous breakdown resulting from too much study and too little emotional expression.

  41. Joan Miro: Acclaimed surrealist Joan Miro phased in and out of depression his entire life; a low period coupled with a bout of typhus encouraged him to drop out of business studies and pursue art instead.

  42. Isaac Newton: Sir Isaac Newton, without whom many scientific and mathematical advances would not be possible, often suffered from depressive spells that manifested in verbal altercations with contemporaries.

  43. Friedrich Nietzsche: The quintessential existentialist philosopher dealt with his frequent dips into depression and suicidal pressures with narcotics and endangering relationships.

  44. J. Robert Oppenheimer: Friends and family wrung their hands over J. Robert Oppenheimer’s chain smoking and failure to eat when his mind became too occupied with physics and/or depression. On a few occasions, he even admitted a preference for science over people.

  45. Sylvia Plath: Psychology professionals still argue over a specific diagnosis for poet Sylvia Plath, but regardless of labels the woman attempted suicide numerous times before eventually succeeding. Throughout her life, she displayed reckless and irrational behaviors and needed antidepressants to make it through day-to-day doings.

  46. Edgar Allen Poe: A lifelong struggle with depression resulted in Poe’s most haunting writings — as well as academic difficulties and an ultra-strange marriage to his 13-year-old cousin.

  47. Jackson Pollock: Jackson Pollock fell victim to a nervous breakdown in 1938 in spite of therapy, eventually turning his attentions towards alcohol abuse and a mistress to distract himself from debilitating self-doubt and a tumultuous marriage.

  48. Mark Rothko: Although family describe him as a rather open and gregarious man, artist Mark Rothko harbored some inner demons that eventually drove him to suicide.

  49. Kurt Vonnegut: Depression ran in the beloved writer’s family — his mother committed suicide when he was 22. He survived his own attempt in 1984, frequently writing about the experience and opening up readers to the harsh reality of mental illness.

  50. David Foster Wallace: Fans were shocked when the enormously talented writer took his own life in September of 2008. In reality, though, he had suffered from clinical depression for almost 20 years. Shortly before that tragic day, Wallace and his therapist had decided to change prescriptions — a move that ultimately proved fatal.

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