The link between creatives and mental health — and how we make a change
Let me start by saying that I absolutely love my career. It’s what drives me every day and I have unending energy and passion for it, as most creatives do. It’s important to remember as you read through the information that links creatives to mental health — that we love it, choose it and for the most part, wouldn’t change it.
I have been working as a designer for nearly 10 years, holding different positions along the way but one thing is forever the same. The feeling of unease and uncertainty, regardless of how strong you seem. To be a good designer is forever to doubt yourself and know you can always do better, which can sometimes feel the opposite to everyone else. In a professional office setting, you tend to find that everyone is working with definite information. Whether it’s requirements or data, they have a defined set of guidelines to follow to achieve their goal. Being creative does not have any guidelines to follow and it’s not easy to do on a deadline — yet we choose to do this every day.
The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This principle translates into processes in a creative industry, especially into UX. It helps us make more educated amends by knowing our users and having a good background knowledge in the field. What looks like a guess to the outside is actually very specific sets of information all coming together to feed into the outcome that is best for this specific situation.
Days are particularly taxing mentally on creatives, as we have relationships with everyone in the business to communicate the right message. Every piece of work generally has touchpoints with heads of departments, project managers, business analysts, data trackers, email marketing, developers, the legal team, the design team itself and sometimes even directors. Every piece of information from these touchpoints about the project is funnelled into the visuals — which means that everything is funnelled straight to the designer to translate into a creative. Managing these relationships is all part and parcel of a designers day to day role. In reality, what we are expected to do in the words of Muhammad Ali, is float like a butterfly and sting like a bee — we’re expected to make diamonds every day without showing the pressure.
Second-guessing what a user might want or need from your design is an everyday occurrence, but second-guessing everyone’s opinion in all aspects of life is exhausting and wastes precious time. With so many touchpoints and opinions, it’s essential to know your user and be able to be an advocate for their needs. You need to separate peoples personal visual opinions with required amends to enhance the work. A great way to fight through the noise is to bounce your work off another designer, or a group of designers. Designers will understand that your work isn’t completely finished and can offer the same educated insights. Having a creative outlet is an integral part of growing in your career and I am lucky to work with a fantastic team of completely diverse creatives that enhance my work every day.
In a 2015 study, a group of researchers collected and analysed the DNA of more than 86,000 people as well as noting what field they worked in — creative or non-creative. From the DNA they concluded that creatives are 25% more likely to carry genes that increase the risks of mental health disorders, specifically bipolar and schizophrenia. This doesn’t mean that all creatives have mental health issues but they are more prone to developing these issues which in my experience usually starts with things like burnout. Burnout can be mental or physical and caused by taking too much on or even feeling mentally taxed by moving up in your career. Most people won’t even realise this is happening until it’s too late and while burnout is not a mental illness it can be considered a symptomatic mental health issue that needs treatment and care.
Is confidence the key?
Fake it until you make it is a common phrase, one that people use a lot but don’t always have the confidence to actually pull off. Being a creative is definitely one of the times this concept works — as long as you work hard. This is one of the things that can cause massive mental burnout in a creative. Starting out and looking for a creative job, or changing your career is extremely overwhelming in a world where companies want you to have more experience than years you’ve been alive. Job specifications are usually written by someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of a job and has everything you could even potentially want in a designer — leaving a lot of people not applying or just saying they can do it and hoping for the best.
As creatives, we create by seeing and feeling more intensely. We don’t switch off at the end of the workday, being creative is a lifestyle, not a job. Communicating and translating in a way that is completely up for interpretation — we are completely exposed. This amount of exposure can make creatives feel inadequate and lead to things like impostor syndrome. Imposter syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon, is a psychological pattern where someone doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. On the surface, when you project an outward image of knowing exactly what you’re doing (a lot of the time this will become true) — in reality, the feeling of being inadequate is a daily struggle. Most creatives have a high level of openness and sensitivity that makes them more exposed — to everything. This is equally great and demanding, it can cause a lot of burnout if you don’t look after yourself mentally and physically but it can be a tool to become more talented in a short space of time if looked after properly.
What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly? - Erin Hanson
Let’s break it down
There are things I’ve learned about the link between mental health and design from working in a creative industry. If creatives and companies become more aware of these issues, giving staff time to unwind and clear their minds, not only does this make you a better creative — it reduces the risk of stress and mental issues.
Your brain is a muscle
Something that always amazes me is how quickly I can become out of shape when I don’t go to the gym — everything I used to be able to do becomes much more difficult and time-consuming. This is the same with your brain, your brain is a muscle that needs constant work and support. When training psychically you give your body protein and amino acids to help it recover because we all know how much damage it can cause if you don’t look after your body. For some reason, this isn’t considered when it comes to your mental state. Your brain is a muscle and it needs rest and recovery just as much as any other. This rest and recovery can come in many forms including sleep, taking time for yourself or even getting a new hobby that isn’t creative. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function — all things that will make you feel and be better.
There’s a lesson to be learnt in separating work from personal
I mentioned before that creatives don’t switch off at the end of the day — we have to keep up with the creative community and new technologies as well as feeling the passion and pull towards a creative outlet. This can mean that we overwork ourselves easily, it’s not uncommon for creatives to work outside of office hours and at the weekend to get their work done or feel as though they did their best in the time they have. Creatives have a high level of pride in what they do, our work is linked to us as a person and we need to feel that this is representative of who we are and the high standards we achieve. Separating work and leaving it out of your personal life is an extremely difficult thing, even if it’s just thinking about how best to achieve the goal you have — but it needs to be done.
Work for money, design for love
I work specifically in UX which is not always the most beautiful design work, so you have to learn to let go of visuals for data sometimes in the timeframes you have. One of my annoyances is when people have limited knowledge of design or UX and use the phrase ‘best practice’ from their short-lived research on the internet. Best practice basically means that it has worked for other people and is a generalisation of something you should do, best practice is not always what’s best for a product. It’s probably what would work best if a company didn’t have a UX team that can channel research and data along with user personas and brand values into their work to enhance any basic ‘best practice’ into something that really works. If you know me, you know I am all about using metaphors to make things understandable in a relatable way — so here it goes, best practice is kind of like a burger. A burger comes with a bun — great, but for me, I like mushrooms, onions and ketchup… you might like cheese and pulled pork. So to us, ‘a burger’ works, but is not as great as it could be — if you could make the perfect burger for someone, why wouldn’t you?
Asking for help is always a good thing — sometimes
Yes, I realise that that statement seems a little odd, seems like it makes no sense. But I wanted to address the fact that, while yes it is good to get help — it’s more important who you get the help from. So yes, it’s always great to ask for help, but you need to be sure that it’s someone who knows what they are talking about and will enhance your work in a positive way without damaging the UX needed. Other people’s opinions will shape design and a user needs to be involved in the shaping of the world they will be using for it to work cohesively. User research and interviews for UX are extremely important but should be taken as a generalised view. Everyone has an opinion on how things should be, and if you asked your office I am sure there would be several strong opinions on how things should look/feel/work but in the end, it needs to work for everyone. Asking other designers is the same kind of thing — while yes they have a better generalised view overall, designers can be very opinionated and have their own vision of what’s best. So while asking for help is great, you need to add the opinions to your pool of information but still make your own wave. Learning to know when to not take personal opinion and when to show your work is one of the biggest lessons you’ll face — if people get involved too early it can usually spell disaster.
Failure is the path to success
Don’t be afraid of failure — failure isn’t the end. Failure is a path to greater success — you need to know what doesn’t work in order to know what does. There are two types of ‘failure’ that I see most days — the type where you internally feel like you’re failing and the type where you externally look like you’re failing.
Internally feeling like your failing is part of feeling like you’re not good enough — it’s one of the things that shouldn’t be seen as a negative. The feeling of failure is something that shows a creative that they care — the passion and drive to do better will always leave you feeling as though there is better to have. One thing that is good to ease internal feelings of failure is to compare your current self to your previous self. If you’re better than you were before, then that is progress that truly validates you. You shouldn’t ever compare yourself to other people — firstly you never know what struggles are going on underneath someone’s exterior, but also, we are all on our own paths and what is best for other people may not be best for you. Making your own path in the world is how we are truly ourselves and can create our own happiness.
External failure is the path to success, small failures build to make a subset of experiences that show you what works and what doesn’t. This applies to work and in your personal life. To fail, you first have to try — and trying is so much better than not, so realistically failing is half the battle and should be seen more as a positive step towards building your career and personality. If you think about your life as it stands, the person you are now and the relationships you have are built up of good and bad experiences. The bad experiences are just as important, if not more, as the good ones as they shape you more.
Anxiety or excitement?
Tim JP Collins, the host of The Anxiety Podcast, says “Physiologically anxiety and excitement are very similar. The difference is in our interpretation.” In other words, if we recognise the feelings we have as positive, we will feel excited. If we recognise these feelings as negative, then we will feel anxious.
One of the things that can really make a difference in your life is becoming more self-aware. Being truly self-aware is something I have worked towards for a long time. I would say that I am quite good at knowing what my body needs and is going through, as well as what state my mental health is in at any given time. This being said, I am human and there are times where I am completely unaware of what’s happening in my thoughts and body.
Tim JP Collins suggests using the “3 C’s” (Curiosity, Courage, and Compassion).
- Curiosity: Begin by asking yourself questions like, “What’s the message here?” or “Am I safe?” This process engages your prefrontal cortex. Anxiety is kicked off by the area of your brain known as the amygdala (a.k.a., the crocodile brain). Since this area is part of the prefrontal cortex, the questions allow you to interrupt the pattern of fear.
- Courage: Be prepared to feel your feelings and be uncomfortable until it passes. Get to know your anxiety, embrace it.
- Compassion: Anxiety sufferers are masters at mentally beating themselves up with guilt, shame, worry, and embarrassment. Remember that it’s not your fault. Be gentle on yourself.
Taking time to appreciate yourself is something that takes time to learn. Self-love is not the same as having a giant ego, it’s protecting yourself and taking care of yourself the way you would for other people.