Depression in Popular Culture: Films, Literature, Music

Depression in Pop Culture: Film, Literature, and Music

Winston Churchill called it “the black dog.” In Abraham Lincoln’s time, it was referred to as “melancholy.” Depression has been around since the dawn of time, and human beings have been trying to make sense of the disorder through creative expressions and artistic pursuits.

There are many different films and other works of art that revolve around the subject of depression and how it had affected people, especially before modern medicine became effective at alleviating the symptoms of depression. Many of the world’s most famous literary and musical pieces find their roots in the author’s struggles with the disorder. The following article will explore depression’s role in many famous, pop cultural icons and works of art.

Depression in Pop Culture: Films, Literature, Music

What role has depression played in some of the most famous works of art?

The symptoms of depression can be overwhelming and affect many different facets of a person’s life and behavior. When the disease is untreated, sadness, gloom, and self-doubt color the sufferer’s entire world and change their perspective and outlook to pessimism. Before the era of modern medicine, people with depression had few resources to cope with the disorder, and there were no effective medical treatments.

For people with depression, art and expression were some of the only ways to cope with and makes sense of overwhelming, painful emotions. Even in the 21st century, where there are medications and noninvasive procedures to alleviate symptoms, art can still give people a way to release and express their negative emotions and pain in healthy ways. Increasingly, art therapy has been gaining traction in rehabilitation centers as an effective way to help people communicate their distress and decrease the pain associated with the disorder.

When used to treat depression, art gives the sufferer an outlet for releasing feelings and thoughts that are not easy to express verbally, and can only be realized through a creative pursuit. Many famous artworks and artists have demonstrated that the creative process enables those with depression to resolve their negative feelings through creativity. While creativity alone cannot treat depression, sufferers can find some relief in artistic expressions.

  • Pop star Janet Jackson’s triple-platinum album, “The Velvet Rope,” was fueled by her struggles with depression and anxiety.
  • Francisco de Goya’s famous paintings of mayhem, chaos, and absurdity were fueled in part by his struggle with depression brought on by the tragedies of war.
  • Author Douglas Adams began writing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” while struggling with depression.
  • Author and playwright Henry James wrote many of his novels while struggling with depression.
  • Zelda Fitzgerald’s famous “Self Portrait in Watercolor” was completed during her stay in a mental institution in the 1940s.
  • Pablo Picasso’s “The Blue Room” communicates his melancholic, depressive moods in varying shades of blue and few other colors. The painting was completed during the time of his friend’s death.
  • Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was painted during a manic depressive phase.
  • Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “Sorrowing Old Man,” was created two years before he committed suicide.
  • Albrecht Durer’s “Melencolia I” was his depiction of sadness and depression.
  • Writer Hans Christian Andersen penned one of his most famous stories, “The Snow Queen,” during a depressive episode.
  • Depression was a strong theme in Virginia Woolf’s famous novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.”
  • “Hurt” by Johnny Cash is a song about the struggles of depression and suicidal ideation.
  • “Only Happy When it Rains” by the band Garbage is about depression symptoms.
  • Many of William Blake’s famous works were created during manic phases before he would fall into a severe depressive state.

Who are some famous artists who’ve been diagnosed with depression?

  • Kurt Cobain of Nirvana greatly struggled with depression, suicide, and drug use. Unfortunately, he lost his battle with the disease in 1994.
  • Director Woody Allen suffers from depressive episodes.
  • Writer and poet Sylvia Plath struggled with untreated depression as a young adult before committing suicide.
  • Writer Mark Twain struggled with depression in his older years, fueled in part by the deaths of his wife and two daughters.
  • Ernest Hemingway struggled with depression and delusions before committing suicide in 1961.
  • Writer Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926 from fugue state brought on by depression.
  • Edgar Allen Poe struggled with depression and alcoholism for much of his adult life.
  • Beyonce Knowles has admitted to struggling with major depressive episodes as an adult.
  • Kurt Vonnegut struggled with depression as an adult and attempted suicide in 1984. His mother died from suicide when the writer was 22.
  • Vincent Van Gogh struggled throughout most of his life with manic episodes and psychotic depression before committing suicide at the age of 37.

Recent Occurrences of Pop Culture Depression

In recent years, depression in pop culture has received more attention, with musicians and actors stepping forward to fight against depression stigma and highlight the fact that mental illness can happen to anyone. 

Consider recent celebrity cases of depression:

  • In August 2014, Robin Williams tragically completed suicide after suffering from severe depression. 
  • Singer and actress Demi Lovato has been open about her struggles with bipolar disorder, which has included bouts of depression and symptoms of an eating disorder and addiction. She has become a mental health advocate, demonstrating that it is possible to live with a mental health condition like depression and still achieve success. 
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may seem like the last person who would struggle with depression, given his confident persona and tough exterior, but he has shared that he struggled with depression after injuries ended his football career and his girlfriend broke up with him shortly after. “The Rock” has expressed that there is no shame in getting help for depression. 
  • Musician Bruce Springsteen has admitted to having depression so severe that he experienced a period during 2019 where it was difficult for him to get out of bed. Fortunately, he was able to achieve relief with support from his wife and therapy and medication. 
  • Sheryl Crow is among the list of musicians who have battled with depression, and like Springsteen, she has admitted that she experienced periods during which she didn’t get out of bed or answer phone calls because her mood was so low. Her mental health functioning improved with therapy and antidepressant medication, but she has dropped the medication and now uses exercise and meditation to cope.
  • After coming out, television personality Ellen DeGeneres lived through a period of depression, which she reports eroded her confidence. DeGeneres learned to ignore judgment and criticism and realized she didn’t need to be ashamed of who she was.
  • Award-winning actor Ben Affleck has not been immune to the realities of depression. He has disclosed that he has had depression since his 20s, and he takes antidepressant medications. He has also found some relief in attending church and working toward finding meaning and purpose in life. 
  • Jim Carrey may have spent most of his career providing audiences with comic relief, but he was living with depression behind the scenes. Carrey has been open about the fact that he has lived with depression for most of his life, and he has taken antidepressant medications to cope. He now relies upon spirituality to get him through dark days, and he states that depression doesn’t take him down like it used to.

The above examples are just a sample of pop culture icons who have fallen victim to depression. Their stories remind us that we are all human, and we may need to reach out for help from time to time.

Depression Stigma: The Role of Pop Culture

The presence of depression in pop culture has actually had a positive influence on the rest of us. According to a recent study, when people were exposed to a TV or magazine interview in which Demi Lovato revealed that she lives with bipolar disorder, they demonstrated fewer negative stereotypes toward individuals with this condition. What can be concluded from findings like these is that when celebrities reveal that they, too, can suffer from mental health conditions like depression, the rest of society is likely to recognize that mental illness can happen to even those we perceive as being infallible. This removes some of the shame surrounding getting help for depression. Hopefully, with reduced stigma, more people living with depression will reach out to get the help they need to manage their symptoms and live healthy, fulfilling lives.


Is there a definitive link between depression and creativity?

Studies have found that there is a link between mood disorders and creativity. Recent studies have used personal interviews of subjects, as well as diagnoses that reflect contemporary concepts of major depression and bipolar depression. All recent studies conducted on the links between depression and creativity have found reliable, positive connections between the two concepts. Creative persons do have higher lifetime prevalence rates of major depressive disorder and bipolar depression. Writers and authors tend to score the highest on rates of major depression and bipolar depression as well.


What are the treatment methods for depression?

Unfortunately, there weren’t many effective and safe treatment methods for depression when famous artists like Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and Vincent Van Gogh were alive. But today, there are many different treatment methods for the disorder that are both safe and highly effective.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, medication, therapy, or a combination of these two is the most common treatment for depression. A review of 153 studies concerned with depression treatment found that both medication and therapy were effective for improving quality of life and functioning among people with depression, but the combination of the two treatments was more effective than either treatment on its own. While positive effects were found, it is important to note that improvements with therapy and medication tend to be small to moderate, so some patients may require additional or alternative treatments for depression.

In about 30 percent of cases of major depressive disorder, patients will be treatment-resistant, meaning that their symptoms do not improve after undergoing at least two treatments for depression. For patients who do not respond to medication and therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an alternative treatment option that has been found to be safe and effective for treatment-resistant depression. 

TMS is a non-invasive outpatient procedure that can be completed during a 20-minute appointment, and it involves the use of magnetic coils to stimulate areas of the brain involved in mood. Pulse TMS provides this service to help patients achieve long-term recovery from depression for those living in the Los Angeles area. Contact us today to determine if this is a suitable option for you. 

Updated 6/28/21