Mental disorders affect millions of people worldwide and can significantly impact quality of life. While mental disorders themselves cannot be seen, some believe that certain colors are associated with specific conditions based on personality traits, moods, or meanings assigned to colors. This article will explore what colors are thought to represent for some of the most common mental disorders like depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental disorders, affecting over 300 million people globally. It is characterized by persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of low self-worth. The color most associated with depression is grey. This drab, dull shade evokes the sense of sadness, gloom, and emptiness that often accompanies the disorder. It represents the ongoing feeling of gloom and melancholy associated with depression. The lack of vibrancy in the color grey reflects the blunted range of emotions and bleak outlook seen in many with depression. As an emotionally “heavy” color, grey can symbolize the difficulty in finding joy or motivation that individuals with depression experience.
In art therapy for depression, clients are sometimes asked to draw their emotions, with grey being a common color choice to depict their feelings. Using grey helps externalize the internal struggle with sadness they are facing. Multiple shades of grey are sometimes utilized to show variations in mood or emotions. Lighter greys can represent limited optimism during periods when symptoms are less severe, while darker greys reflect more intense feelings of isolation, worthlessness, or anguish. Overall, the color grey has become a symbolic representation of the complex and multilayered symptoms of depression.
Anxiety disorders are estimated to affect over 280 million people worldwide. This category includes generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorders, phobias, and PTSD. The color most associated with anxiety is yellow. The vibrant hue of yellow evokes feelings of caution, fear, and uneasiness. It demands attention and can feel abrasive when present in excess. This corresponds to the sense of constant worry, impending danger, and heightened arousal that accompanies anxiety. Bright yellow can portray the tense, alert feeling of anxiety in contrast to calmer blues and greens. Darker mustard yellows also represent the disorder by promoting feelings of gloom and dread.
In color psychology, yellow is associated with mental and intellectual activities, so the use of yellow to represent anxiety focuses on the overactivity of thoughts that is central to anxiety. Constant rumination on negative outcomes, excessive planning, and analysis paralysis can be depicted by abundant amounts of intense yellows. Yellow’s association with warning signs and caution imagery also lends itself to representing anxiety. Just as yellow evokes wariness, individuals with anxiety disorders are in a persistent state of watchfulness against threats. Overall, the use of yellow in a multitude of intensities and hues effectively captures the experience of anxiety.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder estimated to affect over 60 million children and adults worldwide. The color commonly associated with ADHD is red. Red is bold, intense, and stimulating. It increases heart rate and captures attention, much like the symptoms of ADHD can feel. The fiery hue of red symbolizes the impulsivity, hyperactivity, and frequent shifts in focus that individuals with ADHD experience. It represents the heightened stimulation of the disorder.
In ADHD educational material, red is often utilized to explain the concept of hyperfocus. While those with ADHD can have difficulty maintaining attention, in some tasks they can become engrossed to the point of obsessively hyper-focusing. This duality is often depicted through contrasting red and blue color schemes. Tranquil blues represent inattention, while bold reds demonstrate states of extreme focus. The eye-catching nature of red illustrates how ADHD thoughts and behaviors demand more attention compared to neurotypical functioning. Overall, red is used extensively to capture the atypical arousal states and stimulation that accompany ADHD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex psychiatric condition triggered by exposure to a traumatic event. The prevalence of PTSD in the general population ranges between 3-4%. The color most commonly linked to PTSD is black. Black represents the sense of void, emptiness, and loss of meaning that can follow trauma. In contrast to depression’s grey tones, black signifies the extreme developmental arrest that can occur with PTSD. Where grey suggests sadness, black denotes absolute detachment and profound disconnection. It illustrates the feelings of numbness, loneliness, and isolation associated with PTSD. The depth of black expresses the difficulty trauma survivors can have in accessing emotions or connecting interpersonally.
Black also captures PTSD’s association with death and darkness. Following exposure to death or near-death experiences, black represents the persistent fear and disempowerment trauma victims can face. It illustrates the magnitude of the inner emotional damage that occurs in PTSD. Using black demonstrates the all-encompassing, pervasive nature of traumatic memories and cues. Just as black absorbs all light, trauma consumes positive emotions and thoughts in PTSD. Overall, the intense void of black provides a stark representation of complex trauma responses in PTSD.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects approximately 1-2% of adults. The color scheme most commonly associated with OCD is grey, black, and white. This link to OCD likely comes from the disorder’s association with order, perfectionism, and exactness. The rigidly organized rows of monochrome color convey the strict organization obsessional thinking demands. The neatness and precision of perfect lines expresses OCD’s focus on intangible order, symmetry, and morality.
In OCD-related art and media, these colors are utilized in repetitive patterns that reflect repetitive compulsions. Creating shapes or lines exclusively in one hue represents the rigidity in thoughts and behaviors. Variations in light and dark shade illustrate attempts to achieve the “just right” feeling compulsions aim for. Breaking up color blocks conveys errors or imperfections that trigger extreme distress. Keeping shapes uniform and evenly spaced depicts the goal of maintaining a sense of rightness or symmetry. Overall, the stark, orderly contrast of black, white, and grey helps viewers visualize the precise obsessions and compulsions central to OCD.
Bipolar disorder impacts around 45 million people worldwide. It involves alternating episodes of mania and depression. The color scheme typically used to represent bipolar disorder is a combination of yellow, grey, and blue. The vibrant pops of yellow depict manic states characterized by high energy, heightened mood, insomnia, and racing thoughts. Grey tones symbolize depressive phases of low motivation, sadness, and lethargy. Blue is used to represent a calm, balanced mood that contrasts with the extremes of mania and depression. The juxtaposition of lively yellow, subdued grey, and tranquil blue visually conveys the complex mood changes central to bipolar disorder.
These colors are sometimes blended together in swirling circular patterns or wave-like gradients to illustrate the cyclical nature of bipolar disorder. The chaotic mixing of hues depicts the unpredictability of changing mood states. Sudden switches from grey to yellow demonstrate abrupt transitions in mood that can occur. Finding balance between the extremes is represented through combining all three colors into a harmonious blend. Overall, yellow, blue, and grey help create visual representations that parallel the reality of living with bipolar disorder.
Schizophrenia is a complex psychiatric condition that alters perception, thought, and behavior. It affects approximately 20 million individuals globally. The color palette most frequently associated with schizophrenia is a mixture of red, green, and purple. The connection stems largely from the visual distortions and hallucinations that can accompany schizophrenia. The bright hues appear in bizarre combinations and patterns that detach from reality.
The surrealism of these colors attempts to reproduce the externalized view of internal experiences individuals with schizophrenia face. Clashing colors like citrus greens with magenta create jarring contrasts that reflect the sense of overwhelming stimulation schizophrenia can produce. Unnaturally saturated hues illustrate the intensity of psychotic episodes. Fragmented patterns and shapes convey the disorganized thought processes and speech that may arise. While limited in capturing the full complexity of schizophrenia, the odd combinations and altered perceptions of color symbolize some of the key symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive dysfunction.
Mental disorders have a complex array of symptoms and impacts that are difficult to fully encapsulate. However, associations between colors and psychiatric conditions provide a visual tool for creating insight and understanding. While these links are hypothetical, the use of color can help express internal states that cannot be directly observed or described. Grey for depression, yellow for anxiety, red for ADHD, black for PTSD, monochrome for OCD, a spectrum for bipolar, and surreal hues for schizophrenia allow others to conceptualize the experiences of those with mental illnesses. The colors offer a representation of disorders that remain invisible despite their significance. While not an exact science, utilizing color to symbolize mental health provides a starting point for appreciating these complex conditions.