Teens who participate in after-school arts activities such as music, drama and painting are more likely to report feeling depressed or sad than students who are not involved in these programs, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
This is the first study to find that young people's casual involvement in the arts could be linked to depressive symptoms, according to the researchers. The article was published online in APA's journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
"This is not to say that depression is a necessary condition for either a teen or an adult to become an artist, nor are we showing that participating in the arts leads to mental illness," said lead author Laura N. Young, MA, of Boston College. "However, previous research has revealed higher rates of mental illness symptoms in adult artists. We were interested in whether this association is present earlier in development."
While girls were more likely to take part in the arts after school and reported somewhat higher rates of depression than boys, the study found that both boys and girls involved in arts reported more depressive symptoms than those who were not involved in extracurricular arts activities.
Teens involved exclusively in sports were the least likely to report depressive symptoms. However, there was no difference in depressive symptoms between teens involved in the arts who also did sports and teens involved in the arts who did not also participate in sports. This suggests that arts participation rather than a lack of sports participation was associated with depression, the authors said.
The researchers looked at American teenagers' involvement in extracurricular activities in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 using data from the U.S. Longitudinal Survey of Youth collected from 2,482 students 15 to 16 years old. Of the sample, 1,238 were female, 27 percent were black, 19 percent were Hispanic and 54 percent were non-Hispanic whites.
The students responded to survey questions asking how often they participated in "lessons in music, art or drama, or practice of music, singing, drama, drawing/painting" and "going to sports lessons, playing sports or practicing any physical activity" after school. Answers could range from "often" to "almost never," the study said.
To determine rates of depressive symptoms, the survey asked teens how often they experienced various moods or problems associated with depression, such as poor appetite, difficulty concentrating, downcast mood, lack of energy or motivation, restless sleep and sadness. Their answers could range from "none of the time" to "all of the time."
As for why there appears to be a link between the arts and symptoms of mental illness, one theory the authors presented is that people drawn to the arts may have certain cognitive traits, such as taking in a higher than average level of information from their surroundings. While dealing with excessive stimuli could lead to general distress and depression, a heightened awareness of self and surroundings could lead to greater creativity and artistic expression, the authors said. Personality traits such as introversion, which has been linked to depression, could also lead to preferences for more solitary activities that are more likely to be associated with practice of the arts than with sports, they said.
"When positive behaviors such as being involved in the arts are associated with symptoms of mental illness, it's essential that we understand why," said Young. "Further research can address the question of whether potential psychological vulnerabilities can be transformed into strengths through the practice of the arts."
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"Heightened Incidence of Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents Involved in the Arts;" Laura N. Young, MA ; Ellen Winner, PhD; and Sara Cordes, PhD; Boston College; Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, online Nov. 12, 2012.