Creative mental health: what toll did 2020 take, and what have we learnt for the year ahead?
International designers and artists share their personal experiences with lockdown, financial stress and a dramatic upturning of work life, by way of catharsis, reflection and advice for 2021.
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On a cold Sunday afternoon last December, I met my friend Ana Lessing Menjibar in front of a restaurant that sold mulled wine and Austrian street food in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. She tapped on my shoulder, I turned around – and for a very long second, I wondered who this woman was. Ana, a dancer and visual artist, had cut off her signature waist-length dark and curly hair and dyed it a silvery blonde. I gasped. “Lockdown,” she said, by way of explanation. “I felt I was going to explode so I had to do something.”
It feels redundant to repeat what a difficult year 2020 was for people all over the world. Political extremism, police brutality, the effects of climate change, the coronavirus – they’ve shattered our sense of normalcy (as well as the economy) and set fire to our daily lives. The long-term effects on our wellbeing will take years to manifest.
But the events of 2020 also had an immediate impact on people’s mental health. Creatives tend to have unusual work arrangements and an intense way of interacting with their environment. So I wanted to know how they have coped (beyond dramatically changing their hairstyle) and what learnings they’re taking into 2021. Speaking to people in the U.S. and western Europe, I found that last year’s hardships changed many creatives’ relationships with their work and their sense of self – and that even as they continue to suffer from the events of last year, as they’re embarking on 2021 they feel stronger, more balanced and more confident than they did before.
“I found that last year’s hardships changed many creatives’ relationship with their work and their sense of self”Kati Krause
Back in April, I called my friend Paola de Grenet in Barcelona. Spain had been under a strict lockdown for a month – so strict it was called “the confinement” in Spanish – and children hadn’t been allowed to leave the house. Paola, who has two kids, is a photographer who usually travels extensively for work and always has a home full of people. I was worried about her. But that was unnecessary.
“I quite enjoyed my sabbatical,” she said. She’d used the downtime to make art, something she has often lamented not having enough time for. “I feel more anxious about going back to normal than I did at the thought of being isolated,” she added. “I already notice I’m falling back into the anxiety of daily life.”
This experience – of a much-needed break that provided a luxurious space for personal and artistic reflection – is one that many creatives seemed to share during the first lockdowns. Ana, the dancer, told me she used the time not only to recover from being hopelessly overworked, but also to focus on her physical health and to mourn the death of her mother a few years earlier. “I went inwards and to completely new depths,” she recalled.
She also used the extraordinary circumstances as inspiration. Her performance collective met over video to develop a new piece exploring loneliness, which they presented to a series of single audience members later in the summer. “Being creative is an advantage because you’re used to being closely in touch with the now and can use changes in your environment as a creative source,” she told me.
Of course, this creative break was only available to people who didn’t have to care for small children. Steve Watson, who runs the magazine subscription service Stack in London, said that the first lockdown, when schools and nurseries closed, was by far the most stressful time last year. He and his wife juggled two full-time jobs with homeschooling and caring for two children. “Then you just try and squeeze work into any available time,” he says. “I'd be working till stupid times at night and getting up early to try to do some work in the morning, and that was really tough.”
“Being creative is an advantage because you’re used to being closely in touch with the now and can use changes in your environment as a creative source”Paola de Grenet
Yet paradoxically, Steve says, it was his kids who helped him get through the year. “You come to the end of your working day and you go downstairs and there's a two-year-old who wants to play, and he's just happy that you've come downstairs,” he says. “It’s really nice just having another priority in your life.”
Stack has now closed its office in central London and Steve is spending the time he’s saving on commuting with his children, which makes him happy. Where Ana and Paola have realised the importance of stopping the wheel for an occasional creative time-out, Steve simply tinkered with the balance of his daily life. And like Ana, he has changed his appearance, though more out of boredom than emotional strain (he’s grown a lockdown moustache).
Ana has also learned how to be alone. That’s no small feat: I know her as a fiercely sociable person who never misses an evening at an exhibition opening or the theatre, usually followed by drinks. She never used to appreciate being by herself before. “That’s something I really enjoy and will use in the future,” she said. “To decide when I want to interact and when to withdraw.”
However, as Germany entered its second lockdown, closing all cultural institutions, restaurants and bars and limiting meetings, the option to interact was again taken away from her – and she’s suffering. “What’s weighing on me is that I can’t experience things physically, with my body,” she said. “I feel alienated. With all these rules, we can only perceive things analytically, from a distance. The unexpected impulses have ceased to exist.”
Several people told me they now have more appreciation for the small things in life. One of these – which isn’t quite so small – is serendipity, which has been tied up and gagged by social distancing and remote work. Online encounters and digital cultural offerings simply don’t have the same inspirational effect for many creatives.
Indhira Rojas, a creative director at Facebook’s Studio X who until 2019 ran her own design studio, Anagraph, and published the magazine Anxy, told me that working from her home in Oakland, California, since the spring has made her more and more grateful for what it means to be around people. “I could be on my computer, researching something, and a random comment spurs a brainstorm,” she says. “Those sideline conversations that lead to insights, they're just not happening. I do think that's limiting how we can connect the dots and come up with more innovative ideas.”
Grappling with this reality was part of a larger theme for Indhi last year. “The thing that has been the most difficult is that, whatever expectations you had of normalcy, it didn't happen,” she says. “Whatever stories we had about the life that we were living, they're just out the window.”
“Those sideline conversations that lead to insights, they're just not happening. I do think that's limiting how we can connect the dots and come up with more innovative ideas.”Indhira Rojas
The pandemic, the wildfires ravaging California, the Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice and the tensions around the presidential election – for Indhi, they were just the backdrop to a series of personal catastrophes. She had several stints in hospital, underwent surgery, temporarily separated from her husband, sold the house she loved and had to accept she would need to undergo fertility treatment. It all meant she was forced to completely reconstruct her identity and sense of self, which was a painful process.
“The biggest learning of last year is we have to grieve who we think we are and that in that grief, we can find strength that we never thought we had,” she told me. “I was holding on to this idea of how I wanted my life to unfold and what I thought motherhood was going to look like, what I thought my relationship was going to look like, what I thought my work was going to look like. I had to let all of that die.”
That experience could have been diminishing. But Indhi says being forced to tap unknown resources has made her feel stronger than before. “It gives me a sense of confidence and peace, that whatever presents itself this year, I will be able to get through it,” she adds.
The Barcelona-based illustrator Anna Parini has gone through a similar process of letting go. I worked with Anna over a decade ago and have been following her path ever since, as she became a regular appearance in such heavyweight publications as The New Yorker, The Economist and The New York Times. I admired her success and that she was able to do so much of what she loved. But things weren’t going quite so smoothly.
“I hadn’t been connecting with my work and had lost my ambition,” she told me when we spoke in December. “The pace, the deadlines. At some point, you’re out of ideas and start repeating yourself. I’d been wishing for a while that everything would stop. Yet I was never able to say no.”
As Spain ground to a halt in March, Anna kept working. But she noticed the shift in energy around her and knew she was missing an opportunity. So she decided it was the year to change: she was going to be less demanding with herself, decline jobs she didn’t want to do and not worry so much about the lost opportunities.
When we spoke, she was on a break from a meditation workshop and sounded happy, giddy even. “Right now I’m having so much trouble concentrating that I’m spending twice as much time at work and achieving half of what I did before,” she told me, laughing. “It’s been terrible for my ambition. But I’m much less anxious about not getting things done or doing them badly. I’m starting to enjoy myself again.”
Anna stresses that her learning process was a long one, not a neat sequence of calamity and catharsis. This was the case with everyone I spoke to – a fact that can get lost when telling their stories in a few paragraphs. Some people leaned on their experience with introspection or therapy; others depended on art or the support of loved ones. Everyone said it was hard work and it was painful, but they’ve come out changed. Maybe we all have.
We all need help in hard times. If you or someone you know is suffering, here are some places that provide support.
Crisis and Support Hotlines:
Global - Befrienders: Network of 349 emotional support centres in 32 countries providing
confidential support to people in emotional crisis or distress, or those close to them.
U.K. & Ireland - Samaritans: Charity providing support 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Samaritans offers a safe place to talk in your own way about whatever is getting to you.
England - NHS Urgent Mental Health Helpline: Local centres offering 24-hour advice and support – for you, your child, your parent or someone you care for.
U.S. - National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Provides round-the-clock, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
U.S. - National Alliance on Mental Health HelpLine: A free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with a mental health condition, their family members and caregivers.
Australia - Lifeline: A national charity providing all Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.
Germany - TelefonSeelsorge: Nationwide network of 105 support centres offering free in-person, phone and online emotional support to anyone in need.
Online Support and Other Resources:
List of U.K. mental health charities, compiled by the NHS. Most offer phone support or in-person counselling.
U.K. - Side by Side, the online community of mental health charity Mind.
U.S., Canada and UK - Together All, a safe online community to support your mental health, 24/7.
U.S. - Talkspace offers paid online therapy for anyone, including couples and teens.
U.S. - National Institute of Mental Health, the largest scientific organisation in the world dedicated to research focussed on the understanding, treatment and prevention of mental disorders.