Death by a Thousand Cuts: Why the Music Industry Needs to Prioritize Mental Health
Paracelsus Recovery advocates for a more compassionate understanding of the so-called ‘troubled artist’ in the 2020s.
A dangerous composition of mental ill-health, substance abuse, and burnouts took thelives of music icons Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Presley, and so many other talented individuals. Unfortunately, the trope of the troubled artist is nearly as old as art itself. Consequently, the collective, even historical, understanding of the emotional anguish of musicians has been numbed by an implicit expectation to suffer for your artwork. However, in reality, the ‘troubled artist’ is an individual drowning underneath numerous environmental stressors such as an unhealthy work-schedule, the pressure of being watched continuously when you live in the public eye, and the illusion that fame should bring happiness. Paracelsus Recovery has treated numerous artists for addiction or psychiatric challenges, and we have seen first-hand the toll fame can take on a creative mind. In particular, meaningful, authentic, relationships are essential for those living in the public eye because, paradoxically, the more well-known an artist grows, the more un- known the individual that lies behind it becomes. Or, in Van Gogh’s poetic words — “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”
Creative Geniuses are More Likely to Suffer from Mental Illnesses.
Hendrix, Jackson, Presley, and Winehouse all had two fundamental things in common; they were royalty within their genre of music, and they all died tragically young as fame destroyed their mental health. Both Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix tragically died of overdoses at 27 years of age. Michael Jackson died at 50 years of age due to an overdose on prescription medication, and Elvis Presley died at 42 years of age from a heart attack brought on by years of prescription medication abuse.
However, despite the stereotypes that prevail, research (2011) has found no direct link between creativity and substance abuse. Nonetheless, more and more studies are revealing that there is a link between creative genius and mental illness, which has high comorbidity with substance abuse. For instance, it has been argued that Elvis Presley suffered from anxiety, a mental illness unknown in his time, but one we know now saturates the music industry. In his final months, it is estimated he took over 10,000 prescription drugs to battle his crippling low self-worth, and various health issues brought on by years of pushing his body to the extreme.
Also, studies have shown that bipolar disorder has a strong correlation with high levels of creativity. One such study (2012) in Sweden analyzed the intelligence levels of 700,000 Swedish teenagers. When they followed up with them a decade later, the scientists discovered that those 16-year old’s who excelled creatively were four times as likely to develop bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is one of the most common co-occurring illnesses with substance abuse, with some studies finding a history of drug abuse in 56% of individuals with bipolar. Neuroscientific imaging has shown that when an individual comes out of a depressive phase, the brain’s frontal lobe experiences an overload of activity, which is similar to what occurs during an outburst of creativity. Amy Winehouse struggled with bipolar amongst other diagnoses, and she poignantly sums it up in her iconic song Rehab when she declares, “Yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back, you’ll know.” While Hendrix was never officially diagnosed, many have suggested he also battled bipolar, and his song Manic Depression poignantly depicts the illness.
Amy Winehouse also struggled with the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, and it is well-known Michael Jackson struggled with body dysmorphia amongst many other diagnoses. The quintessential symptom of an eating disorder is a desire to be ‘in control’ of one’s body. These artists spend hours of their lives with a team around them, ensuring their ‘image’ is marketable. One can imagine how the relationship between your body and your career, and the endless potential to be photographed, can lead to a deep desire to feel in control of your body. If there is already a predisposition to mental illness, then the seeds may be sown for an eating disorder to arise.
Ensuring our mental health is nurtured requires secure emotional connections to those around you. In the case of artists, ensuring healthy relationships with their manager and the immediate team must be a priority. All too often, musicians find themselves surrounded by people invested in what it means, for their self-worth, to be “this musician’s friend.” They may be far more attached to the image of success this person offers them, then with the artist’s humanly imperfect and vulnerable self. One pop star told Louis Fitzmaurice, a live-in therapist at Paracelsus Recovery, that when people look at him, “they look at me like an alien…as if I have something extra, but it’s not true, I have something missing.” In Amy Winehouse’s case, her self-destruction became an integral part of her persona, and tragically, that made it marketable. Consequently, artists like these and many more, lived in profound isolation and pain, as their career overshadowed their emotional wellbeing.
Musicians are Increasingly Overworked, which can lead to a Dependency on Substances.
A recent study (2019) found that, in a survey of over 1,500 musicians, 73% reported struggling with mental illness, and a mere 19% said the music industry provides healthy working conditions. Each of these artists had insane work-schedules, with Elvis, Jackson, and Hendrix finding themselves reliant on uppers to get through burnouts, and downers to sleep at night. Long hours, spending months at a time on a bus, combined with the reality that living in the public eye means being watched at all times, can act like a pressure-cooker for those already struggling.
As a result, dangerous methods of coping with the pressure, exhaustive work schedule, and instability that comes with spending large chunks of the year on a bus may arise. One such example is the use of medications, such as opiate pain medications, amphetamines, or benzodiazepines. Often artists begin using drugs to enhance performance. Yet, the subsequent short-term reduced stress-levels and boosted confidence sow the seeds for an addictive relationship to develop.
Elvis Presley was famously overworked, playing two shows a night in Las Vegas in the 70s, and playing over a hundred concerts a year before his death. However, there is even more pressure now than there was in Elvis’s days. The success of Spotify and various other music apps have moved money from records and CDs to the live environment of concerts or festivals. Michael Jackson’s untimely passing reflects this, as he underwent two months without REM sleep in 2009, in an attempt to complete the longest run of successful concerts in history. Regardless of your passion for a profession, overworked schedules such as these can result in severe burnouts. Burnouts are breeding grounds for the growth of a mental illness or substance abuse. However, due to the metamorphosis underway within the music industry, they are becoming more and more frequent. Ensuring artists get enough rest, and do not push their bodies to the absolute extreme must be at a priority for the music industry in the coming decade. However, to do so, this also requires a fan-base to remember that their favorite artists are, firstly, vulnerable human beings.