Developing an inner core to weather (and even grow from) mental health issues

I was asked to write a piece about the experience of mental health issues as a ‘creative’ person. Depression and anxiety aren’t reserved for traditionally defined ‘creative’ people, however. Running a business, raising a family — these are acts of creativity, too. My observation has been that creative people may feel they are more sensitive to feeling 'messed up', but they also have an outlet that others don’t have, and that can be seen as a blessing — but of course when you feel like crap it seems hardly enough. Also artistic types may feel they are ‘different’ from other people and this can sometimes make them quite isolated and introverted, which can have a synergistic effect on underlying psychological issues. (Not to say there aren’t extrovert creative types either.)  

Below are my observations on how to weather and move on from depression into stability. Here’s my toolkit that helped me rewire my brain chemistry over decades into a pretty happy and stable person — I studied the shit out of it! — not just through books but in practice, from meditation to lucid dreaming to exercise to ‘talking’ therapy.

Tool 1: Understand the inner landscape

If you’re a gardener, you study soil types, plant types, landscaping styles, tools to use, etc. If you’re a digital designer, you learn about design patterns, coding, Photoshop, Sketch, prototyping tools. Similarly, if you have mental health issues, study the hell out of it and try the different tools. Don't just read books but actually experience different methods. The mind and emotions have their particular rules and rhythms that that can’t be cheated. The hacks work only short term.

We aren’t taught this stuff, and for those of us who’ve lived only an external life — interacting with people and things outside of us — it comes as a shock when our internal landscape becomes un-ignorable (be it through panic attacks, bad dreams, insomnia, depression, overall angst, etc). Therapy, coaching, and studying both eastern and western methods and trying them will help you become familiar with tools for your inner landscape. Meditation, yoga, and reading up on some Jung and watching YouTube videos by contemporary figures like Jordan Petersen will empower you to be able to figure out what’s going on and get the help you need. Meditation doesn’t work for every type of mental health issue. Medication might not help with underlying angst or bad dreams. Studying the stuff and talking to people from different modalities will help you figure out what you need to do to start to feel better.

Tool 2: Get the ordinary stuff right — don’t be an idealistic creative person

I know many creative types who are so caught up in their vision or projects but can’t do normal grown-up things like pay their rent, eat and sleep properly, hold down a job, or keep a business running. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety and then on top of that you have to worry about rent or the future, it’s really hard to move on to rewiring your brain chemistry out of depression.

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before you want to feel stable and safe or reach the height of your creativity, get the ‘normal’ stuff right so you don’t spend years in misery to the point where there can be a point of no return (I’ve seen that happen to people). 

Maslow’s revised Hierarchy of Human Needs (Image from Big Think)

That basic lower-pyramid stuff is so unsexy for those focusing on creative or spiritual needs but I’ve seen this is where so many people fall down. Also when they start to get unstable, money and jobs are where they start to unravel first. Do you want to be unhappy like Van Gogh and Amy Winehouse and create works of art and be miserable, or get your normal life stuff sorted out? Your creative juices or work won’t stop once you’re happy — creativity is not dependent on misery. (It’s simply that some folks will have an outlet to make it less unbearable, but it doesn’t eliminate depressive tendencies IMO.)

Creative people intrinsically love intellectual growth, so learning new skills in your area — be it the new practices in architecture and design or starting new businesses — also helps with self esteem. Continually making more money as you get older can help with feeling more stable and a sense of being able to take care of yourself too — that’s a long term plan but I’ve noticed those who invest in this area do tend to get more chilled out and less anxious as they get older (instead of the reverse).

Think of the tin-foil wearing Chuck from Better Call Saul — people I met in real life who are like this made me determined to change fast… some of them seemed to wait too long to work on their mental health issues, and more resistance to change builds up as you get older.

Tool 3: Remember it does toughen you up

I kept telling myself that all the years of feeling ‘bad’ and 'just not quite right' would eventually make me more empathic to others' needs, and that it would teach me about the inner landscape of the human psyche, and that there is an end in sight. It helped to know people who had been through it and told me so too. 

I remember the first time I had panic attacks. I was living in Manhattan and I called a friend — a Vietnam veteran who became a heroin addict on return from the war to forget the things he did, and then eventually he became a super healthy yoga teacher. “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown!” I wailed. “What?! You’ve only had one?!” he said laughing…  It’s a high price to pay (years of misery) but you do get something for it. I think it helped me through those years to know that. 

If you are working on tools 1 and 2 to get you through mental health issues, you are rewarded with tougher paws that don’t hurt every time you step on them. The soft pads on a puppy’s paws are cute but unfortunately, especially if you're a sensitive or depressed person, they won’t get you far. Develop those tough paws by taking care of yourself through tools 1 and 2. 


Tool 4: Surround yourself with healthy people

Depressed people may have grown up with family members who make them feel terrible — it might not be that they mean to be that way, they just don’t know how else to act. It might be completely subconscious. And it might carry through in your life — due to you having grown up with such people — that even when you move away from them, you end up with friends who drain you or partners who are drama queens/kings. Healthy people have a positive effect on you and are very stabilising long term. I can smell 'vampires' a mile off now — folks who drain your energy. 

Especially if you are depressed or anxious or having panic attacks, that’s the last sort of people you need. Rubs off on you. Protect your inner landscape from such influences by avoiding them — join a meditation group, go to night-school to study something that interests you, and find a therapist, while you cut off ties from energy-leaking social circles and start new ones … it can take time to socially start from scratch, which is why some people never sever their umbilical chord from ‘vampires’. If you’re depressed and anxious, you need all the energy you can to start to feel better. Don’t be giving it out free to ‘vampire’ types.

Tool 5: Get out of the aul’ head

Designers, painters, writers… their work is done while the body is not moving much. Depression and anxiety manifest physiologically — ultimately by chemical changes in the brain — and especially if you’re in a studio or in meetings all day, or looking at a screen or canvas for hours on end, it’s hard to shake off all that bothers you. Intense but enjoyable and sociable exercise is sometimes enough for folks to fire their therapists as it gets rid of anxiety and builds confidence pretty immediately. Rock-climbing, jiu-jitsu, swimming in the sea daily — these things make you proud to learn something physically challenging and short-circuits obsessive thoughts. 

Kelle Link at a night of training at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club in Dublin

“Growing” from mental health issues

If you’ve had long term depression or anxiety issues (or suddenly have panic attacks and mental health issues are all new to you), and it forces you to...

  1. Study how thoughts and emotions work and you become your own expert in them
  2. Sort out money and job problems, and develop professionally to feel financially secure as well as creatively challenged
  3. Hang out with emotionally healthy people who are kind to you
  4. Exercise regularly

… then it seems like you DO get something out of paying the (very high!!) price of the suffering you’ve experienced. 

What I’ve seen — in myself and also others — that not dealing with mental health issues only makes it manifest in way worse forms down the road. It doesn’t “go away” left on its own. One guy I know seemed functional and normal — wife, kids, great job — but in his mid-40s he fell apart because of all the issues he never dealt with (he grew up in an emotionally very destructive family). He hasn’t recovered seven years later as he refused to deal or see what’s going on internally.

If you leverage your situation and condition — as hard as it may be to endure them — by seeing what inner demons may have caused them to manifest, or what underlying conditions you may have, then your level of confidence is greater than those who haven’t been through it. I hope that provides some consolation and motivation to engage in the suggested practices. 

Kelle Link is taking part in Mind Over Matter, Ireland's national day of design in aid of mental health on 2 November. 

Kelle Link

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Kelle is a principal of user experience at Verizon Telematics. She has more than 15 years of experience in the industry and has consulted around the globe on developing UX processes and running IT initiatives right through to production, with clients ranging from the NHS to Toyota.