I came across an article claiming that teens involved in the arts harbor more feelings of depression than teens not in the arts. This grabbed my attention, because I have been taking art classes since 10th grade. Not only was art my favorite class in high school, but it became my escape from other stressors in my life. Doing art for hours a day absolutely heightened my mood and relieved my stress. I would stay after school for hours to do art because of the way it affected my mood and overall happiness. Because my personal reaction to art is nothing but positivity, I was absolutely shocked when I saw an article regarding how the arts are somehow linked with depression.
Researchers, led by Laura N. Young, MA, looked at data regarding the extra-curricular activities of 2,482 students ranging from ages 15-16 from the United States Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They surveyed these students by first asking how often they participated in after school activities, and which activities they were involved in. The survey then asked how often the students felt gloomy, agitated, and other common symptoms of depression. The results showed that students involved in after school arts programs generally reported higher scores on the depression survey.
Although my initial reaction to the article title was that the arts cause depression, I realized this is most likely not the case.
The article discusses two possibilities, both of which are explained through confounding variables:
- Extra sensitivity to stimuli in the environment. While this could be a cause for depression, it could also be a cause for creativity. Creativity is correlated with artistic ability, thus drawing these types of people to the arts. This would mean that being in the arts has absolutely nothing to do with depression, and the cause for higher rates of depression is due to a common character trait among young artists. Therefore, this extra sensitivity would be a confounding variable.
- Introversion. Introversion is often more prevalent in people with depression. Introversion is also a trait of many people who enjoy art as an extra-curricular activity, because art does not demand that a person expresses himself or herself directly. Whether it be music, theater, drawing, or painting, none of these activities demand direct expression of emotion. All expressions can be displayed through in an indirect way. Therefore, introversion would be the confounding variable between the arts and depression.
This got me thinking about the types of people in my high school studio art class.
When we had critiques, many of them were nervous to speak. Many were reluctant to share their work with the class. These same kids often did their drawings and paintings on personal struggles in their lives. For example, one girl’s entire concentration was her progression through her chronic depression. In each piece, she would use less black and more light to portray her transformation to a stable state. These students always seemed happy during class time. They always seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves while they were working.
From this, I gathered some of my own explanations.
- Depression causes people to join the arts. The arts could be an outlet of relief, distraction, etc. Therefore, people who are depressed look to the arts to overcome these emotions. Could this be why the girl’s concentration showed a progression away from depression? Could drawing be causing her to overcome her mental illness? This would mean that my initial question would actually be backwards. Therefore, this would be reverse causation. I find the possibility of reverse causation in this case to be much more provable than my initial question.
- People who aren’t in the arts may not be properly addressing their feelings. These students may have filled out their surveys dishonestly (either intentionally or unintentionally depending on the situation) because they do not have the same ability to express themselves in their spare time. The arts give students the freedom and time to look deep within themselves, while sports players are not necessarily able to stop and think about themselves. This would mean that teenagers in general face depression, and maybe even more so the ones who don’t participate in the arts. This would completely botch the results of Young’s study. I really think this would be an interesting thing to study, but it would be nearly impossible to determine if students are telling the truth or not.
I believe that all four conclusions presented by both the authors’ and myself are viable possibilities for higher depression scores in art students. If anything, I think that the arts either positively affect students, or don’t affect them at all. After personal experience, observation of my classmates, and analyzation of this article, I do not believe that the arts have any direct hand in causing depression.