Joni Mitchell’s Experience with Depression

Was It a Symptom of Mental Illness or Nourishment For Her Creativity?

Welcome to From Insults to Respect. From time to time I have been discussing two distinct ways of looking at the nature of depression–the medical model and what we may wish to refer to as the creative temperament view.

The medical model views people who experience depression as having an illness that requires, as the first line of treatment, taking pills that are called “antidepressants.” The enormously wealthy pharmaceutical industry puts its full promotional apparatus behind this approach.

The creative temperament view lacks the backing of any huge corporate interest, but news of it trickles in from a variety of sources. For example, those interested in the history of psychology may learn how the brilliant psychologist and philosopher William James viewed his “bass notes of experience” (see “William James’s Personal Bout with a ‘Mental Illness'”). He wrote that many so called “healthy-minded” individuals believe that those who worry are “morbid-minded” and “diseased,” but it may very well be true that “the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.” He, himself, learned to appreciate these visits of melancholy as something of extraordinary value, and stated that,

there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

From there, James reviewed the biography of some of the most creative people in history, and noted that they often experienced depression.

Ms Laren Stover

Ms. Laren Stover

A more recent example of someone discussing depression in a manner consistent with the creative temperament view appeared in a New York Times article titled “The Case for Melancholy.” There we learn from American writer Laren Stover about her own personal experiences. After telling us of her weariness of all those folks on the internet promising to show us how to be delightfully happy in just a few short steps, she writes:

sadness 3“Whatever happened to experiencing the grace of melancholy, which requires reflection: a sort of mental steeping, like tea? What if all this cheerful advice only makes you feel inadequate? What if you were born morose?”

Laren continues to weave her creative images of melancholy with such words as:

sadness 2“Sadness has a bad reputation. But I soon came to feel that melancholy — the word itself is late Latin from the Greek melancholia — is a word with a romantic Old World ring, with a transient beauty like the ring around the moon.”

Most recently, I discovered a particularly revealing example of someone who experienced her depression in a manner similar to Prof Willam James and Ms. Stover.

Joni Mitchell’s Experience

Reckless Daughter, is a new biography of seven-time Grammy Award winner Joni Mitchell. Prior to reading it, I had already gotten a sense of Joni’s view of melancholy from her soulful rendition of her song “Hejira.” There she sings,

I’m sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In the moody sky today

Now, having read the book, I found a clearer sense of this sensitive soul’s perspective.

In 1971, Joni released her album Blue, which, according to her biographer David Yaffe, deals with “the feeling underneath the tears, before the tears, the surge and power of heartbreak.” Although the success of the album might make you think she was thrilled, and perhaps there was some of that, but it was a time of a great depression. There must be more to life, she figured. How does she handle this?

“I bought every psychology book I could lay my hands on. Jung, Freud, theology, self help, psychiatry.” She ended up throwing them all against the wall. And then she was introduced to Nietzsche, and learned from him that to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.

She decided to spend some extensive alone time in nature along the beautiful coast of British Columbia. It was there that she discovered that “Depression can be the sand that makes the pearl…. Most of my best work came out of it. If you get rid of the demons and the disturbing things, then the angels fly off, too. There is the possibility, in the mire, of an epiphany.”

Concerns that she was dealing with were, “How am I going to get back in the saddle? And what about the audience? Would you still love me if you knew what I was really like?” And then, in the midst of all of these swirling heartfelt feelings, the words and music for her next album, For the Roses, began to flow through her soul.

An interesting characteristic of Joni is that she so values her melancholy that she doesn’t like it when someone tries to cheer her up. “If somebody’s dark and brooding, you’re better off brooding beside them,” she explains. “Don’t go acting cheerful. You’re just a reminder of what they’re not. They’ll hate you for it. The last thing you want is a cheerful person when you’re down like that.”

Of course, there is a great deal more to the life of Joni Mitchell. Nevertheless, I shall pause here, for I think I achieved my purpose of giving readers an added sense of the creative temperament view of depression. In one of her interviews that appears in Yaffe’s biography, Joni explicitly rejected the idea that she was mentally ill.

Was she wrong? Would she have been better off fully accepting the notion that she was suffering from a mental illness? Is her experience with depression really no different from diabetes, as many claim?

Certainly, there were times during which she experienced suffering. But just as suffering occurs as part of the process of giving birth, it can also be part of the process of giving life some deeper, truer meanings to this crazy, incredible experience we call life.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. People around us are not generally happy. There are and have been political disagreements. There are religious groups, each accusing the other of sin, etc. If you drink you are going against the beliefs of some groups, if you eat meat you are going against the beliefs of others, etc. There is constant disapproval. Personally I am a vegetarian (almost vegan) and I gave up drinking and smoking decades ago. I will therefore get far less disapproval than most people. Living like this I am far happier. And I am far healthier than most my age. I do not believe in tranquillizers, etc and have a website

    • Thanks for your comment, Thomas Edward Miller. I’m glad to hear you are making some careful choices about what you consume. I have two sons that are vegans and they really like the way they feel with this diet. When I am with them, I eat the foods they eat and I have found that there is a surprising variety of dishes that can be created in the vegan style. I’m mostly vegetarian, for I have not been able to give up the type of pizza that I grew up with. Wishing you well.

  2. (Too) many times I wrote on this subject. Here’s one of my scribbles:

    When a client comes to me diagnosed as (clinically) depressed, I tell him/her that she/he should count their blessings and should enjoy their depression to the fullest. After the first shock and disbelief that they chose me for a therapist, I explain to them that I belong to those who like to descend into the deepest abyss possible, physically as well as mentally, and will grab any opportunity to make that happen. And so should they! It can be scary, but also makes one feel alive. So, now they are in this so called depression, they should look at it as an opportunity to experience something not so many people will get. It fact, so I explain to them, they’re the privileged ones, and must be nuts to let such a once in a lifetime opportunity pass. From then on……………yes, it works. Besides, it’s fun too.

    Of course, this approach is not for everyone, and I would never force my stuff unto them, but for the ones who take the bait, a different world opens, and they will feel good again, even better. And so do I.

    • Hi Roald Michel,
      Thanks for sharing with us your experience. Like you, I have found that there are a substantial number of people who find some significant value from going though the very types of experiences that so many professionals view as pathological.

  3. As a licensed mental health professional, I know there are times that medication becomes a viable and potentially necessary option; however, I particularly appreciate your statement about the full force of an extremely profitable industry perpetuating the medical view of depression. The creative temperament interpretation has the dignity of appreciating each of our own uniqueness. Furthermore, in a society that seems to be increasingly sensitive in its emotional distress tolerance (or lack of), discussing different ways of handling emotional difficulty has increased application value.

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