My name is Bri, and I’m depressed. The fact that my most recent web series is called Sam and Pat Are Depressed is not a coincidence. And despite the incredibly toxic assumption that “all artists are depressed,” real actual depressed people know that depression makes it harder, not easier, to create. I’m frequently asked by fellow filmmakers how I’m able to continue being productive in spite of my mental illness, and while there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, I do have a few strategies that have been helpful to my process.
Big note: I am (obviously) not a doctor nor a mental health specialist, just a person with depression and anxiety who also sometimes makes films for the internet to varying degrees of success. If my advice doesn’t work for you, or can’t for some reason, don’t @ me. Leave your competing or alternate advice in the comments so that we can all do our part in making living with mental illness a little easier on one another.
Before we get any further, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, there is a 24-hour helpline at 1-800-273-8255 or you can visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Treat your illness
Depression and anxiety are problems with your brain, not problems with you. The best and most important advice I can give you is to actually treat that problem. For most people, mental illness isn’t something that can be chased away with a good regiment of therapy and medication, but it can be managed, and it can get a lot better. Here’s a great resource of, well, resources that can help at every financial level, but definitely please seek help if you can.
The same way it’s hard to walk with a broken foot, it’s hard to think and thus hard to be creative with an untreated mental illness. It’s not impossible, but it’ll hurt, and it’ll take a lot longer than it otherwise might. If you can get help or find medical ways to manage your diagnosis, do it- not just for your ability to work with a clear(er) head but also for your continued happiness in general.
Know and respect your limits
Everyone has different thresholds for stress, for productivity, and for how many people you can deal with in a day. First of all, remind yourself that if your threshold is lower, you are not a failure. You are not hopeless, and you are not destined for anything less than your wildest dreams. You are a person, end of story.
Your limits don’t have to limit you, they might just limit the speed you’re able to tackle production work. That’s ok. Take the time you need to tell the story you want to make without working yourself to death in the process. Set deadlines further away then you need to. If you feel up to it, push yourself. If you don’t, don’t. No piece of art is worth your health.
Compensate for breaks
Part of setting further off deadlines is scheduling in days where you don’t do any work, or at least leaving yourself time to take an unexpected break that won’t completely derail your project. There are nights when I get home from work, look at a list of promo videos I have to edit, and then just… can’t. I just can’t. I stare with dead eyes at a single email to which I only have to respond “sounds great!” and cannot lift my fingers to the keyboard to do so. I get it- it happens.
I’ve also learned to accept that sometimes this happens, so I try to make sure I’m honest with myself and my team that occasionally I’ll be harder to reach than usual. If I literally can’t take a break, first I double check with myself about whether that’s actually true. A lot of the time, it’s not, and I can take a break, I just feel guilty about taking said break and demanding deadlines of myself that aren’t necessary quells my fear that at any moment it all might slip away and it’ll be all my fault.
My brain is not, as you’re likely picking up, a peaceful place.
If something is actually pressing, even after soul-searching, I trust myself to do it, even at my lowest points. But that’s just me- that’s not always the way depression and anxiety manifest in someone’s productivity. In those cases…
If you remember my inability to send basic emails from a few paragraphs ago, you know I don’t take this tip lightly. Neurotypical folks often underestimate the emotional energy basic social/professional tasks can take to complete for those with depression and anxiety. It doesn’t mean you get to use your depression or anxiety as an excuse every time, though.
As early as possible in your project, before true stress is even a factor, disclose to teammates you trust that you suffer from depression and anxiety. How much detail you go into is up to you, but I’ve found that being open about my reality makes the entire process easier on everyone. I’ve also gotten better at telling people mid-fog that I’m in a fog and therefore can’t be counted on for a few days, but I understand that’s not always an option.
Practicing openness about your mental health keeps everyone on the same page, so if you have an off day, someone else not only knows they need to pick up the slack, but they know why. Nothing is more frustrating than an important team member dropping off the face of the earth with no explanation- and it’s not the dropping off that’s the central problem, it’s the explanation. You are dropping off the face of the earth, and it is on you to let people know that you’re not available. It’s not your fault that you have a mental illness, but being a part of a team means it’s your responsibility to communicate that you can’t do something you previously agreed to, or that you can’t do something within the existing deadline. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. It’s a level of personal transparency that I struggle with hourly. But I made a commitment, to my team, to accomplish certain things, to complete certain tasks. If I can’t do that, regardless of the brain chemistry behind the “can’t,” it’s on me to make sure that everyone who’s relying on me knows what’s up, as quickly as I can get that information to them. It helps if you’ve primed people for the potential of an unexpected work freeze. Here’s a template that might be helpful:
You might not know this, but I have [depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder/etc], which means that sometimes, frequently without warning, I might disappear. I’ll be hard, if not impossible, to reach via text or email, and I may be unable to complete certain tasks in the time we previously agreed upon. However, I am 100% committed to this project and will do everything in my power to take on what I feel comfortable being responsible for and to come through in a timely fashion.
I will do my best to communicate to you when my depressed brain has overtaken my normal one, but sometimes I might not be able to. Let’s work together to figure out a good process for how we all handle that, and thank you in advance for understanding. I believe in this project and I’m so happy we’re working on it together and with your help, I will not let my brain keep us from making something awesome.
The biggest mistake (among many) that I made early in my filmmaking career was taking it all on myself because I liked the idea of having fifteen credits on my IMDb page. There’s something intoxicating about the idea of working so hard you don’t have time to sleep or eat normal meals and having it pay off as an amazing piece of art. I like being impressive. I like being seen as impressive. I’m also a person with anxiety, though, and not taking care of myself isn’t a skill I want on a resume.
Put aside your pride and ask for help. Be realistic not only about what you physically have time for in a day but also what you can reasonably expect to accomplish with your limits and emotional/physical well-being in mind. Delegate more than you think you need to, because you’re always going to underestimate how much work something is, no matter how many productions you’ve got under your belt.
Even more importantly, though, build a team of people you trust and actually feel comfortable delegating to. Just like in everyday life, a support system on your web series can be the difference between a bad day and a bad year.
Once again, to reiterate, this is by far from comprehensive, psychologically educated advice for every person with depression and anxiety. However, these are tips that have helped me in managing my illness and I hope that it is even a little bit useful to even one or two of you. Do you have more advice for managing mental illness and still making great art? I’d love to hear it! Comment below!