Mental illness, unlike other illnesses, is still considered a huge ‘stigma’ in society and is not spoken about in an open manner. People are unaware of the severity surrounding these illnesses and words such as ‘crazy’ or ‘psychotic’ are thrown around casually without realizing the baggage that comes with it.
Many musicians in the past are known to have suffered from various mental illnesses without a hint of them being revealed during their time alive. Investigations after their sudden and tragic deaths have brought interesting facts to the surface to enhance our knowledge and increase our awareness.
A study by Shelley H Carson analyzes the link between creativity and mental illness. She found out that creative people were at a higher risk for developing three particular disorders: mood disorders (bipolar spectrum disorders), somatic symptom disorder and substance abuse disorders.
It was also discovered that schizophrenia, which is also common among creative individuals, managed to put these artists in a schizotypal state where they are no longer repressing their most repressed emotions and thoughts, thus breaking from the norms and reality surrounding them and in turn enhancing their creativity in completely new ways.
The most famous of these sudden deaths has to be the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Kurt was the lead singer of the then famous band ‘Nirvana’ and was known to be suffering from bipolar disorder and severe depression. Bipolar disorder is basically distinguished by extreme mood swings ranging from a manic phase where the person experiences extreme highs and happiness, to a low depressed phase where they do not want to see anyone or do anything.
He was also struggling with substance abuse and became a heroin addict during his peak years of success. His wife, Courtney Love, also a singer, suffered from substance abuse and has been in and out of rehab many a time. Kurt died at the age of 27 when he was unexpectedly found dead in his Seattle cabin with a gunshot wound with a high dose of heroin still in his body.
Jim Morrison, the singer of the band ‘Doors’ and the most iconic guitarist, was also found dead in his bathtub in 1971. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was an avid drug user who eventually died of a brain hemorrhage. His fellow band member, Robby Krieger, when asked to comment in an interview about how musicians are still going through the same problems even years later, was reported saying, ‘It’s not as bad.
At least there are rehabs and stuff, and at least people talk about it. Back then you wouldn’t even say a word – It was just, ‘Hey man, it’s cool, it’s the ‘60s.’ That’s what you did.’
Ludwig van Beethoven
The all-time genius who produced timeless symphonies, Ludwig van Beethoven also had a serious case of bipolar disorder which he never took any medication for.
Most of his famous work was also written and composed during his periods of manic high but his illness soon transformed into depression and he stopped working completely.
The current generations of musicians, due to this increased awareness about these disorders, are now speaking up about their experiences, sharing their problems and admitting the problems they went through.
Adam Levine, the famous lead singer of the band Maroon 5 has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He shares, ‘When I was first diagnosed with ADHD, it wasn’t a surprise because I had difficulty in high school focusing. And I think now people notice my ADHD as an adult on a daily basis. When I can’t pay attention, I really can’t pay attention.’
Sinead O’Connor, the singer of the 1989 hit song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She took medications for years to treat it and eventually found out that it was not a bipolar disorder that she was suffering from but post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
She now speaks about how it is so important to get the best help out there and not over-medicate oneself as that can lead to even more intensified problems, particularly in the case of an incorrect diagnosis.
Beyonce Knowles, the queen of R&B, suffers from depression and has spoken about how she was always afraid no one would love her or that she would never make friends. Katy Perry, another singer, too suffers from the same illness and has spoken how it’s not easy for her to handle heartbreak, particularly when she separated from her ex-husband.
The most recent singer diagnosed with bipolar disorder is Demi Lovato. Lovato, who is extremely popular and a favorite amongst young adults, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has also suffered from bulimia since she was 8 years old. She speaks about how she was mercilessly bullied in school and used to cut herself as well to cope with the pain she went through.
She started receiving treatment in 2010 which allowed her to publicly share her journey. She says, ‘This is an ongoing process and the hardest part about these diseases is that they’re things that I’m going to have to face them every day for the rest of my life. I’m going to mess up and I’m not going to be perfect, but as long as I try every day to get better and better myself, then I’m one step ahead of where I was before.’
Michael Angelekos (Passion Pit)
In 2013, an award show titled ‘Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards 2013’ was held to honor musicians who have battled with mental illnesses. Michael Angelekos, the lead singer of the band Passion Pit, openly spoke about his experience with a bipolar diagnosis.
He said, ‘My goal has always been to try to humanize the concept of having a mental health issue that has obviously interfered with my job and my career, and my life in general.’ He also spoke about how once he discussed his experience openly, it stopped taking precedence over his music and people paid more attention to his work than his personal life.
I know Justin Timberlake was deemed the prince of pop but how cool would it have been if Prince Rogers Nelson had been crowned the ‘Prince’ of pop. With his ‘in your face’ personality, glamorous lifestyle and flamboyant outfits, who knew he had been struggling with a mental illness, namely, epilepsy. In 2009, during an interview for PBS, Prince openly spoke out about his lifelong struggle with epilepsy to host Tavis Smiley.
“I used to have seizures when I was young and my mother and father didn’t know what to do” admitted the legendary singer himself. Although his tragic death had been caused due to an opioid overdose, many believe the mental illness he suffered from played a vital part in his demise.
“I wasted such a big part of my life when this epidemic was beginning to happen in the early 1980s. And I was a drug addict and self-absorbed.” Spoke Sir Elton John, while addressing MBC today.
The award-winning artist suffered from a severe cocaine addiction and came face to face with death itself when he overdosed in 1975 and stated, “I’d have an epileptic seizure and turn blue and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed, and then 40 minutes later I’d be snorting another line.” Apart from his drug addiction, he struggled with a mental eating disorder by the name of bulimia, that forced him to gobble down a large amount of food, uncontrollably.
On March 12, 2013, the larger than life, rap icon, Lil Wayne was rushed to the hospital while shooting for a music video, after he was found suffering from multiple seizures. After much speculation and a lot of conspiracy theories, Lil Wayne himself had this to say in a phone interview broadcast on L.A. radio station Power 106, “The bad news is I’m epileptic.”
Furthermore, he added, “This isn’t my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh seizure. I’ve had a bunch of seizures, ya’ll just never hear about them.” “I go to sleep and wake up in the hospital,” expressed the fellow epileptic, Lil Wayne, in an interview for MTV’s ‘RapFix Live.’
Ever seen the Award-winning, iconic, genre-defining movie “a beautiful mind,” remember the hallucinations that the protagonist struggled with on a daily basis.
Well, apparently, the co-founder of one of the most influential rock bands, “the beach boys,” namely Brian Wilson is no stranger to this illness. He suffers from auditory hallucinations, imagine hearing strange voices telling you to do unspeakable things. Although initially diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, but later re-diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. He claims that the hallucinations started way back in 1965. Truly a nightmare on its own.
And that sums up exactly what we as a society need to be doing for our country and our world. We need to be careful about the words we are choosing and be sensitive about mental illnesses just like we are about other severe illnesses, such as cancer or hepatitis. The way physical illnesses are not glamorized or demonized, mental illnesses don’t need to be thought of as satanic and glorifying either.
By supporting all those who are going through what is possibly the biggest nightmare of their lives, we need to provide encouragement and support to make them accepted and applaud them for their positive efforts to continue to fight every single day. Together this battle can be won.
Let me start by saying that this list isn’t to glorify those with mental illness, like they deserve a medal for being stuck with this affliction, but rather to make music-lovers aware that some of their favorite musicians have struggled with mental illness, whether they overcame it or not. In this list you’ll find artists who openly spoke out about their illness and artists who preferred to keep it quiet; in this list, you’ll find both the diagnosed and undiagnosed. What’s important to remember is how frequently mental illness, in its many vexing forms, falls upon those who are artists. Some consider it a blessing; others a curse. As you’ll read, whether it was because of mental illness or other external forces, some of these stories end in tragedy, but it doesn’t have to (To educate yourself on mental illness, which is still stigmatized in this country, please check out NAMI.) Some musicians I wanted to add that could’ve possibly had mental illness or definitely did were John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Ludwig van Beethoven, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Alanis Morissette, Roky Erickson, Tom Waits, and Stevie Nicks.
Syd Barrett. The late Syd Barrett, a former and founding member of a progressive rock group Pink Floyd, was never officially diagnosed with mental illness, but many believe that he may have been bipolar or schizophrenic. Many also believe Barrett’s drug use, particularly psychedelics, was the spark that ignited his mental illness. Members like David Gilmour and Roger Waters both have commented or wrote songs about mental illness, which many believe were inspired by Barrett’s physical departure from the band in 1968 and his mental departure from reality overall. In particular, the band’s 1975 album, Wish You Were Here, was created as a tribute to Barrett; ironically, an unrecognizable, almost incoherent Barrett stopped by the studio while the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which brought Waters to tears. Said Waters of the situation, “I’m very sad about Syd. Of course, he was important and the band would never have f***ing started without him because he was writing all the material. It couldn’t have happened without him but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him…” Although Barrett recorded two solo albums, he eventually withdrew further from the world to focus on painting and gardening, and he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006.
Daniel Johnston. Daniel Johnston knew he was going to be an artist from a young age. He would make homemade tapes for random people, and even Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt featuring one of Johnston’s album covers. However, Johnston suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which forced him into several mental institutions for most of his life. Many debates whether these illnesses had an effect on his low-fi music, or if Johnston simply prefers recording demos in his basement. He’s created seventeen studio albums and three live albums, as well as having worked on various side projects and collaborations. He now resides in Texas, living with his parents, and he still records and writes music.
Ian Curtis. A co-founding member of Joy Division, Ian Curtis is known for being a huge influence in the post-punk movement. While there are different accounts of who Curtis was as a person (a man who abandoned his wife or a people-pleaser, who constantly was afraid of letting people down,) there is no doubt how talented he was as a lyricist. It’s unknown how far back Curtis’s depression went, but those close to him know that as Joy Division became more and more famous, Curtis’s depression worsened. In 1980, about to embark on their first tour in the US, band mates were shocked to learn that their irreplaceable member and friend had committed suicide by hanging. Although his wife Deborah said that Curtis confided in her that he didn’t want to live past his 20s, it’s clear there were other issues at work as well, including Curtis’s disintegrating marriage to Deborah and his frequent seizures, which were caused by his having epilepsy. While with Joy Division, Curtis helped create two albums, as well as writing the band’s first charting hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson is known for being the leader and co-founder of the Beach Boys; however, he eventually was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Before 1968, Wilson was the key songwriter for the band, but his role as this became non-existent at this time, as he was “spending the majority of his time in bed, sleeping, doing drugs and overeating.” After the release of the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds, his disease caused him to have nervous breakdowns, hear voices and become unpredictable, which halted the release of the band’s follow-up album, Smile. However, after extensive medication use and therapy, Wilson continued to record and perform as a solo artist. He’s created eleven solo albums spanning from 1988 to 2015.
Sinéad O’Connor. When you think of Sinéad O’Connor, you probably remember her most for her 1989 cover-hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Troubled with notions of suicides, and after seeing therapists and visiting the hospital, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 30s. She related being bipolar “as a gaping hole in the center of (her) being.” She eventually found the right medication, and “within half an hour it was like cement going over the hole.” However, after eight years of taking medications, which included antipsychotics, the artist came to the realization that she was suffering not from bipolar disorder, but from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She now speaks out about the importance of getting a correct diagnosis and how some doctors will easily over-medicate someone when in reality, the person needs extensive therapy, not medication. Going off the meds was not easy for her, as all professionals know that you have to wean yourself off; even though she found out she wasn’t bipolar, the process of going off this meds ironically gave her bipolar symptoms. Despite PTSD not being a technical mental illness, I included Sinead on this list because of the importance of those with mental illness receiving a correct diagnosis.
Lou Reed. Lou Reed, known both for his solo work and for his work in The Velvet Underground, was quite possibly mentally ill, although no one knows for sure. If you’re a Reed fan, surely you heard about his hospitalizations and electro-shock treatments; the latter which supposedly were influenced by his parents who wanted to cure his “homosexual urges.” According to his sister, however, the “issues” began as early as junior high, describing Reed as “challenging, unfriendly and provocative.” It was when he was a freshman in NYC when his parents thought he had his first nervous breakdown, which they believed was rooted in schizophrenia. It was then that the artist began receiving psychiatric care and ECT; however Reed’s sister believes that her parents didn’t put Lou in these conditions because of homophobia, but because they didn’t know what else to do. In his younger years, Reed suffered from panic attacks and social phobias, withdrawing himself from society unless “it was on his terms.” It was during this time that he turned to music. When Reed entered the rock and roll scene, he began using drugs and alcohol, which many believe was his way of self-medicating as mental illness had an even bigger stigma around it back then. However, this caused him to become more depressed and anxious, especially in a social setting. Finally, with the right type of care and support from his family, he began to recover and eventually would achieve his fame. Reed passed in 2013 from liver disease.
Ray Davies. Ray Davies is known for being the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Kinks. However, what might not be as well-known is that he suffered from bipolar disorder. In an interview, he said, “I’d just come offstage and sunk a bottle of downers because I wanted to kill myself. Then I changed my mind. I was dressed as a dandy, it might have looked like a clown to everyone else. But even clowns have bad days.” The Kinks created about 24 albums in their career, spanning from 1964 to 1993; Ray Davies created four solo albums thus far, spanning from 1985 to 2007.
Nick Drake. Nick Drake is considered by many to have been a song-writing genius. That is a genius whose brilliance wasn’t appreciated until after his death. At about age 22, Drake began to suffer from depression and insomnia, although symptoms easily could have been present at an earlier age. The artist passed away in 1974, overdosing on antidepressants. Although coroners called it suicide, friends have said that the cause was really due to deep-rooted unhappiness. But clearly, unhappiness and suicide are related, so no one but Drake himself knows the reasons why. Fans can only speculate that his lack of fame, which probably resulted in his feeling misunderstood, as well as his disease, were the triggers of his death; this is a huge shame because if you examine his body of work, while only being three albums, you can tell he poured his heart out into every song. While tracks like “Black Eyed Dog” described his battle with depression, even uplifting tracks like “Fly” contain a plea of pain: “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face.”
Ellliott Smith Many may not know this, but Elliot Smith was sober at the time of his death in 2003. However, his death, which was due to two stab wounds to the chest, is still a mystery; was it suicide or homicide? No one knows. It’s unfortunate, but many remember Smith for his excessive drug use, which he makes mention of in some of his songs. It was clear to everyone around him that he was depressed, not only because of his self-medicating but because he told multiple people that he would or wanted to kill himself. He was also a cutter. Like many who feel this way, Smith wanted to spare those close to him by killing himself slowly with drugs; but no matter how much he took, he couldn’t overdose. In a very eye-opening article, people close to Smith opened up after his death about Smith possibly being abused as a child by his stepfather. Many believe this was the catalyst for Smith’s depression and drug use, the latter which worked for a while in suppressing the traumatic memory. Since then, Smith’s stepfather has denied these allegations, and even friends of Smith claim they’re unsure of how true this is because when Smith would talk about it, his memory wasn’t clear and his story had holes. One can only hope that in death, Smith got the peace and closure he so desperately longed for in life.
Elliott created five albums during his career, achieving success for songs like “Miss Misery,” which was used in Good Will Hunting. After his death, his family released From a Basement on the Hill, although many feel the album was censored. Still, Smith has a cult following of fans that love and can relate to his music. Personally, when I think of Elliot Smith, a Pearl Jam quote comes to mind: “Take my hand, not my picture.” I don’t think Elliot was ever after fame but simply wanted to express himself creatively the best he could. It makes sense that he couldn’t connect with the business and publicity side of music; he probably just needed to feel like someone else was in his shoes.
Demi Lovato. I chose to put Demi Lovato at number one, as she is the most recent musician, to my knowledge, to come out and openly discuss her illness. Lovato is bipolar but also struggled in the past with an eating disorder, drug addiction, and cutting. Specifically, she told Good Morning America that she suffered from bulimia since about age 8 due to bullying, and she began cutting around age 11 as a way to “cope with her emotions and depression.” The pop singer first entered treatment in 2010 and since then has spoken about her struggles: “This is an ongoing process and the hardest part about these diseases is that they’re things that I’m going to have to face every day for the rest of my life. I’m going to mess up and I’m not going to be perfect, but as long as I try every day to get better and better myself, then I’m one step ahead of where I was before.” She also has said that she keeps her disease in check by taking medication and that she is “living proof that someone can live, love and be well with bipolar disorder when they get the education, support, and treatment they need.” She has since been raising money for mental health awareness through the Lovato Treatment Scholarship Program and the “Hope Dealer” campaign. Lovato is definitely brave for being so honest and forthright about her illness, and because of this, she will remain a positive role model for those struggling with the same issues.
In broad terms, mental health is concerned with our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Impairment in any of these fields which might interfere with our daily functioning and persist for over a period of six months or more, depending on the severity of circumstances, can be termed as a mental illness.
(as seen on healthunits.com)