Dare to be open, dare to be sensitive: how to shape the conversation around creative mental health

10 October 2019

Veronica Mike is a creative strategist and the founder of It’s Friendly, a company dedicated to building a more people-friendly and sustainable creative industry. Their project, Creative Confessions, has a mission to promote openness on mental health and help creatives who struggle feel less lonely and abnormal. In recognition of World Mental Health Day, they compiled the #404 Mental Health Awareness Kit, providing creatives with resources and guidelines on how to better themselves and others.

So, I’ve been a professional creative for about six years now. Four of them I spent running the design magazine A New Type of Imprint at a really cool studio, ANTI. We did well, got some fancy awards, I got selected to be on the jury of two international design awards and it gave me the opportunity to give lectures at universities and in other arenas. All in all, a very rewarding job that gave me a solid overview of the industry. But after observing my own mind, previous classmates, my colleagues, and after interviewing more than 500 creatives for that magazine, I started to notice a few patterns that I found quite concerning.

First of all, many creatives seemed to struggle on a personal level – with everything from low self-esteem and imposter syndrome to stress, anxiety, depression and burnout (to mention just a few). At the same time companies were struggling to recruit and keep talent. Many of them seemed to be stuck in Mad Men times, when underpayment and overwork were the norm, and the ones who couldn’t handle it “were probably not cut out for the job in the first place”. While the ones who did acknowledge the poor conditions didn’t have the knowledge or resources, or simply just the guts, to change course. Whatever the reason, companies were facing major losses due to turnover. Something clearly wasn’t working.


Illustrations for Creative Confessions by Creative Brands

I decided to read up on it and quickly came across studies and research that I wish someone would have provided me with years ago. It turns out that not only is the creative mind full of contradictions (which can be both confusing and frustrating), but its high level of openness and sensitivity makes it more exposed – to everything. Which, first and foremost, is great! I mean, that’s how we create: we see and feel things deeply, we think big and ask big, and we interpret, communicate, create and innovate.

In fact, every single industry makes an extreme amount of money purely based on these traits. “Creativity is the new productivity!” said Chief Product Officer at Adobe, Scott Belsky, in a recent blog post. “In the age of AI and machine learning, just being more productive won’t cut it. The future belongs to the creatives.”

But these traits can also put a creative at larger risk of developing mental health problems. After all, their job is based on their own thoughts, ideas and emotions – and based on having them constantly judged, scrutinised and picked apart by others. On top of this, our industry is full of pressure. In fact, it’s a mess, and the poor mental health conditions of the people in this industry just keeps getting worse.

According to a survey by Ben O’Brien, as much as 79 per cent of illustrators have anxiety or confidence issues related to work; in research by Digiday+ 32 per cent of agency professionals reported being worried about their mental health; while a 2018 research from Epson reported that 25 per cent of freelancers have experienced depression, and 21 per cent suicidal thoughts due to loneliness and isolation. And this doesn’t even include all the artists out there. But despite how common an issue this is, little is being done to improve conditions, and mental health stigma leaves the ones who struggle feeling alone and abnormal, which only amplifies the issues.

Fortunately, mental health awareness is rising, including in the workplace. Yet still some of the CEOs I’ve spoken with over the past year have expressed a fear of opening a certain “Pandora’s box”, as if there’s an unassailable beast hiding inside it. One CEO said it quite frankly: “If I were to pay everyone what they deserve, I would go bankrupt tomorrow.” In other words: There’s still a lot to do, and even more to learn.

Yes, companies need to stop ignoring the inevitable link between mental health, creativity and results, and build a culture that is safe and sustainable. And we need better support systems, both at schools and in the workplace. But first and foremost we need to kill the stigma, and that is a task for all of us.


Just let your extraordinary traits do the magic: Dare to be open, dare to be sensitive! Ask and listen if you think your employees, colleagues or friends are struggling. Share your own experiences with mental health to help others feel less lonely and abnormal. Remember that everyone in this industry – even your boss, who is probably just another creative with a slightly fancier title – are human beings with their own personal struggles. And remember: Your mind is your most important tool – continue to learn more about it and mental health in general, in order to take better care of yourself and others.

But hey, wisdom might not be that far away. Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet” Audre Lorde once said that “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge. They are chaotic, sometimes painful, sometimes contradictory, but they come from deep within us. And we must key into those feelings… This is how new visions begin.”

Happy World Mental Health Day!

Ready to become an advocate for change today? The Creative Confessions Pledge and Guidelines will help you take better care for yourself and others.

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