Why do so many Australian teenage girls suffering psychological distress turn to creative pursuits to alleviate and manage their mood disorders?
As a teenager, Australian singer-songwriter Angie Hart sat her mum down and told her that she needed to take some hallucinogens. She was going to ‘try and rewire’ parts of her brain because ‘nothing was working’ and she felt like she wanted to die.
Angie’s announcement to her mother was the result of years of instability and anxiety. Over a soba noodle salad in a Melbourne café, she tells me that she grew up in an atypical ‘large-format family with no actual nucleus’. Her parents were urban missionaries working in a commune environment, and Angie’s father suffered from depression and had ‘intense outbursts of anger’ of which she was the unwitting target.
‘I was constantly wary of doing the wrong thing, seeing as it was never clear what the wrong thing actually was.’
Angie’s parents divorced when she was in her early teens just as her sister went overseas, leaving her feeling that her family had suddenly ‘dissolved’. At the Fitzroy public schools she attended, Angie felt unaccepted and different. Her diaries from that time detailed her teenage insecurity. ‘Every other day I’d write that I was fat. I’d change my mind day-to-day about what guy I really needed to have approve of me.’
Angie was also drawn into a sexually exploitative (indeed, illegal) relationship with a male adult, and she lost interest in her studies. When she was 13 or 14 she was diagnosed with depression by a GP, but rather than assisting her, the diagnosis only exacerbated her feelings of helplessness.
‘It seems huge, it seems very outside of yourself, it seems dire. I couldn’t relate to it – I’ve got this thing.’
Angie started smoking pot and drinking as a way to connect with other kids. She soon found that marijuana made her feel paranoid and socially uneasy, but the effects of alcohol seemed easier to control.
According to the Young Minds Matter Survey, published in August 2015, 7.7 per cent of Australian adolescents aged 11 to 17 years meet the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. They drink more alcohol, use more drugs, have sex earlier, and are more likely to be both the victims and perpetrators of bullying than their non-depressed peers.
Class inequalities have a strong impact on rates of adolescent mental disorders. Teens growing up in low-income families are at greater risk, and gender is also significant: compared to boys, girls experience nearly double the amount of psychological distress, are twice as likely to consider suicide, and are more likely to self-harm. Other research shows that teenage girls suffering depression commonly experience mother-daughter conflict, negative body image and early puberty. Additionally, one in six girls experience sexual abuse before the age of 16 (compared to one in 20 boys), and such abuse is strongly associated with suicidal tendencies.
To put it plainly, if you are a poor, abused female adolescent in Australia, your risk of mental illness is significantly higher than others’.
One of the interesting results found in the Young Minds Matter Survey related to the ways in which respondents contended with their mental disorders. While almost a third of the 6000 respondents reported using cigarettes, alcohol or drugs to cope with emotional or behavioural problems, nearly half said they took up exercise or a sport (44.3 per cent), did more of the activities that they enjoyed (44 per cent), and sought support from friends (42.5 per cent).
Curiously, the Survey did not ask for further detail nor explore the self-help strategies employed by respondents, and there was no further explanation of what the ‘did more things they enjoy’ category might have included.
Given that information garnered by the Survey is likely to inform services for depressed and anxious teenagers in the education and health sectors, this is an oversight. If 50 per cent of depressed Australian teenagers are managing their low moods by ‘doing activities they enjoy’, a clearer picture of what these activities are is surely necessary.
A 2012 United States-based study, ‘Heightened Instances of Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents Involved in the Arts’, provides some possible insight into the exact nature of these ‘enjoyable activities’. The authors found that depressed American adolescents were more likely to be involved in after-school arts than sports, although they could only speculate on the apparent connection between artistry and adolescent mood disorders, suggesting ‘underlying cognitive vulnerabilities’ result in greater ‘attentional style’ and ‘sensitivity to excess stimuli’.
Depressed teens should be surely encouraged to pursue treatment and recovery via creative activities.
Other researchers, however, have dismissed outright the idea that mental illness produces artistic ability (‘a rather popular current notion for which there is no scientific basis at all’, decries Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Albert Rothenberg), or, conversely, that artistry creates mental ill health.
If there are no reliable findings that artistry creates mental illness or vice versa, then depressed teens should be surely encouraged to pursue treatment and recovery via creative activities. And if Australian teenage girls are twice as likely as boys to have suicidal thoughts and self-harm, and – according to a 2014 Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital study – experience these symptoms beyond adolescence, then the potential long-term therapeutic benefits of artistic pursuits for girls seem obvious.
Following Angie’s kitchen-table disclosure that she intended to experiment with acid as a way of halting her suicide ideation, her mother wisely enrolled her at St Martin’s Youth Theatre. It was there Angie discovered that performance was a greater mood shifter than drugs.
I was so shy and found the acting part of it incredibly confronting, but [I] still had this real desire to do it. I loved all the improvisation, studying plays and just the group thing. I was such a nerd and being around people who were into heady stuff was just such a relief – people who were not afraid to be open about themselves and be different.
When she joined the Theatre’s choir, Angie realised she could sing. At the same time, her fondness for beer and her ongoing search for accepting social groups led to her sneaking into Melbourne’s inner-city pubs. The pub regulars were ‘a bunch of misfits’ – older than her and easier to talk to than her peers. The scene was also creatively inspiring.
At the Punter’s Club in Brunswick Street, Angie met barman Simon Austin, who told her he needed a vocalist for his new band. The pair immediately started writing songs together and was soon performing as part of the group Frente. The whole process – from song composition to public performance – proved exhilarating and cathartic for Angie.
Being able to mine the subconscious and [to] start pouring some of this stuff out, and knowing that someone would hear it… It was terrifying getting up and doing any of that in front of someone – and exciting! […] It’s wonderful to get so nervous about doing something, and then doing it. Starting things and finishing things – real projects.
By her nineteenth birthday, Angie was performing her songs to a captivated national audience. Frente’s debut album, Marvin the Album, released in 1992 when Angie was 20, achieved platinum sales and reached number five in the Australian charts.
Angie Hart was one of five Australian women currently working in the arts who responded to a blog post I wrote about my own attempts as an adolescent to overcome debilitating anxiety through creative pursuits.
When I was 15 I suddenly became terrified of situations and places outside my comfort zone. I couldn’t explain to my family and friends what was happening – that it felt like the sky was crushing my head into my shoulders and suffocating me, that my self-esteem was as low as the linoleum. But after enrolling in an arts-focused public high school, I was able to work some of that dread out through dance, drama and writing.
Feminist writer and activist Karen Pickering was another creative woman who contacted me after reading my blog post. She, too, wanted to share how her creativity had pulled her through her extremely difficult teenage years.
Karen believes that along with a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety, the violence and instability of her childhood home sent the risk of her developing a mental disorder as a teenager ‘through the roof’.
Karen’s mother left suddenly when she was five years old, and to this day she does not know where she is.
My father told me she had gone on holiday. A year or so later when he was remarrying (a woman who openly resented me and who I didn’t like), I asked what would happen when my mother came back. That’s when they told me she wasn’t coming home. I didn’t see a counsellor about this. If I asked questions about my mother I was shut down and told it wasn’t up for discussion.
Karen’s father’s new marriage was also riven by conflict. Karen recalls, ‘I had abuse in my immediate life and around me […] I was always in a heightened state of anxiety and fear.’
The family of writer and academic, Lisa*, catastrophically broke down because her father sexually abused Lisa and her sister. There was no support for the girls or their mother within their extended family, or in their wider community. As Lisa recalls, ‘it was a “don’t talk about the war” situation where everyone thought it was best to just forget it happened’. As a result, Lisa erased the abuse from her memory until she became a mother herself and started having post-traumatic flashbacks.
Devastated by her former husband’s actions, Lisa’s mother turned to drink and was unable to support her traumatised children.
‘She was just unreliable. You never knew what state she was going to be in in the morning, you couldn’t rely on her to do anything or be anywhere at a certain time.’
The relentless party atmosphere in the family home made Lisa feel unsafe. ‘I’d wake up in the morning and there would be someone passed out in the corridor. I couldn’t get my breakfast because there was someone smoking bongs on the couch.’
She spent as much time as possible out of the house – at school, at her supermarket job, or at friends’ homes. Her closest friend’s parents often ‘had a look of pity in their eyes. They’d always feed me and even pack me a lunch.’
Lisa’s unhappy home life was accompanied by relentless bullying at her small regional school in South Australia. Being the only student with Mediterranean skin made her a target.
‘I’d get called a black cunt. I remember once being pushed down and having my face coloured with black texta… Writing on my locker, you know, “fat hairy wog” – that kind of stuff.’
Such experiences contributed to a pervasive low mood and damaged self-esteem. Lisa tried to make herself feel better with booze, to which she had ready access: her mum bought her alcohol and cigarettes ‘because it was easier than having to actually parent a teen’. On weekends Lisa would get ‘completely smashed’.
Illustrator and painter Myfanwy* also remembers drinking excessively as a teenager, perhaps as a way of self-medicating her then-undiagnosed borderline personality disorder.
Like Lisa, Myfanwy grew up in a disharmonious family home. Her father was a heavy drinker and ‘there were a lot of tensions… lots of arguments and some physical violence. It wasn’t close-knit and no one seemed to be getting along.’ Seeking relief from the constant tension, she fled home at 16 and spent the rest of her adolescence in an unofficial foster arrangement with a friend’s mother.
Rather than finding a stable home life, however, Myfanwy was constantly shunted around rural New South Wales and Sydney as her ‘foster mother’ pursued new romantic relationships, avoided creditors and took on an ever-changing array of vulnerable teenagers whom she often manipulated and exploited. Myfanwy’s mental illness – nascent in early childhood – accelerated amid such uncertainty.
I used to have quite a lot of outbursts and self-harm. Quite destructive behaviour. Like having a tantrum – breaking things. That’s also the time that I started drinking a lot of alcohol. It was all risk-taking behaviour. I wouldn’t discriminate. My room was a complete bombsite.
Myfanwy first received a diagnosis of depression from a GP at 18, and was put on Prozac. She couldn’t tell, however, if the medication was having any effect because of her continued heavy drinking. Of greater apparent benefit was her sudden immersion at 19 in a creative community at an ‘amazing’ Sydney arts-focused high school.
Despite initial difficulty forming friendships, she soon rediscovered her latent drawing talents, and after completing Year 12 Myfanwy was accepted into a prestigious arts college. She now believes that her sketchbooks could have been an ‘anchor’ for her during her earlier adolescence and would have helped her manage her difficult feelings.
Where drawing became Myfanwy’s lifeline, drama and writing became Karen’s. A handful of drama and English teachers at the series of elite Queensland boarding schools she was expelled from (she eventually completed her secondary education at a comparatively progressive Catholic girls’ school) were ‘thinking-outside-the-box kind of people who were like, this is just a great kid who’s pretty fucked up, and so let’s give her some scope and some help’.
Karen flourished under their guidance. They ‘showed me kindness and understanding and belief. I’d win the drama prize or I’d audition for some play at another school and I’d get through because I had people backing me.’
Likewise, the literature and art teachers at Lisa’s tiny school in regional South Australia were beacons in an otherwise uncultured small town. They pushed her to achieve high results and she was awarded a scholarship to a major university that enabled her to leave her chaotic house.
It was the fifth woman I interviewed that most profoundly demonstrated the way an adolescent experiencing acute psychological distress may find respite in creative pursuits.
When she was 12 years old, Sandy* ran away from her home in regional New South Wales because her father was molesting her. She was picked up on a highway by a young man. He took her back to his home, imprisoned her and raped her for several weeks. When the situation came to the attention of police, Sandy refused to return home and was taken to a youth-training centre. There she was bashed and sexually assaulted by other girls.
Sandy says she has difficulty making people comprehend that she was locked up – in late-1980s Australia – for being raped.
‘I still can’t actually come to terms with how that made me feel. Words can’t quite express it. I felt worthless, like a piece of dirt, like I didn’t deserve to live, like a piece of shit.’
Out of the institution at 15, but still officially in state ‘care’, Sandy came into contact with a recently released prisoner who forced her to live with him (she calls him ‘the kidnapper’). Subjected to sustained physical and sexual violence, Sandy was soon pregnant.
‘You’re performing something, and other people clap, and then you feel really good.’
Despite these circumstances, Sandy – guided by long-held dreams of being an actress, author and artist – enrolled herself in the local high school.
‘I wanted to go to university. I didn’t want everything to be lost. I was always ambitious, I always wanted to achieve something.’
She did well in art – particularly painting – but it was her drama classes that proved revelatory.
‘I was able to move and be expressive in a way that wasn’t stressful. You go into a different headspace where you don’t have to worry about social things or how you’re perceived as a person, because you’re not actually being yourself.’
Acting in front of an audience was therapeutic, says Sandy. ‘You’re performing something, and other people clap, and then you feel really good.’
After she gave birth to a baby girl, Sandy experienced another two years of ‘domestic torture’ before fleeing with her child to Sydney at age 16. She was in such acute state of post-traumatic stress that she agreed to place her daughter with foster parents under a permanent-care order. While the separation from her child was intensely painful, Sandy is certain she made the right decision.
‘She’s okay […] she never got abused; she never got put into a home or an institution. She’s never been homeless.’
After obtaining some stability in a youth-housing program, at 18 Sandy successfully auditioned for drama school. There Sandy thrived.
‘We got to do dance, a lot of voice, and performance, and I was really good. I got really good roles. It was very exciting. I felt really special and good. I knew I could do it, and they knew I could do it.’
Despite her success at the school, Sandy was often overwhelmed by symptoms of PTSD: flashbacks in which she’d ‘suddenly feel absolutely terrified, be covered in sweat, find everyone around me frightening, and not know what was happening’.
For the main assessment task of a documentary filmmaking subject, Sandy decided to make a short film about the kids in her housing project.
I interviewed maybe seven young people who had experienced homelessness. It really felt like creative expression. It felt really, really good because I was telling something that I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Albert Rothenberg writes:
Because creation has the potential for increasing self-knowledge, there is the possibility of creative persons freeing themselves from their psychological past and making themselves, or aspects of themselves, anew. In other words, creation in the arts and sciences can also facilitate self-creation.
Sandy – who is now a writer – agrees strongly with this argument.
‘Creative pursuits saved me. The homelessness documentary made me feel that I was not alone and that homelessness didn’t make me worthless.’
That she and each of the other women I interviewed remain strongly involved in the arts as adults – despite the low income, rejection, loneliness and frustration it can entail – suggests that they recognise the function artistry plays not only in their creation of essays, paintings, stories and songs, but in their creation of a self separate from the distress (and abuse) they experienced as children and adolescents.
It is dismaying to think that mentally unwell girls – particularly those living in poverty or state care, who attend under-resourced schools, or whose parents simply can’t afford extra classes and materials – may be shut off from creative pursuits. As Angie Hart recalls, ‘I felt victimised at home and at school so rewriting my identity as a creator gave me some sort of self-approval and power.’
The experiences of the women I interviewed show that art can assist teenage girls in both creating new lives and new selves. I can only hope that the next Young Lives Matter Survey pays more attention to this nexus between creativity and girls’ management of their own mental health, and how crucial the arts are in addressing the current youth mental-illness crisis.