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Music and Mental Health

Written By Rohan Mehta, Anish Chodankar & Ichaa Priti


Elliot Smith, being a Needle In The Hay

If anything, music is pure raw emotion personified sonically. The format demands it. Good music cannot be made, like many other art forms, without the distillation of an artist’s raw emotions into the song. A demanding platform such as this, however, takes a toll on mental health. There is a good reason why it is believed that most artists suffer from one mental illness or another. The entire industry circa 2020 is still fighting a mental health crisis that has erupted in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. Artists would have albums to go tour for as the only means to earn their livelihoods. But now, as Andre 3000 had put it a long time ago,

Take a step back and try to remember all the artists you know who have poured their soul and made their art and themselves vulnerable to the masses. Even died for it (and sometimes, because of it). Many preys to their minds, many singing about the struggles faced by others.

Elliot Smith comes to mind. Johnny Cash comes to mind. Radiohead, Kanye West, Silver Mt. Zion, Adele, Katy Perry, Kurt Cobain, Michael Stipe, Have a Nice Life, Interpol, The Smiths, Denzel Curry, Frank Ocean, Death Grips, Vic Chesnutt, Modest Mouse, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Lady Gaga, Honey Singh, Open Mike Eagle, Syd Barret, Keith Flint, Chris Cornell, Bauhaus, Scott Walker, The Manic Street Preachers, Krzysztof Penderecki. Portishead, Joji, Chester Bennington, Kim Jonghyun, Goddamn Ian Curtis - the list goes on forever!

Ian Curtis, at his most vulnerable, always

Distraught and tortured mental health goes hand in hand with creativity, especially in a platform as vulnerable as the music industry. Now, ever since the dawn of the 21st century, a larger emphasis is being put on everyone, from the artist management to the fans to recognise the very human issues their idols go through and make music about. Some stem from birth such as mental disorders like ADHD (Justin Timberlake) and some unfortunately dawn in throughout one’s career and life (Karen Carpenter).

There is only one way to face mental health and the societal stigma that we have doubled for musicians, whom again we treat like celebrities and not human beings…and that is unification and openness towards the discussion of genuine mental health issues. Wider education of mental health issues, disorders and their symptoms in the populace. Far reaching and incredibly available resources and coping mechanisms available for everybody who has to feel the pain of being gnawed at by their own psyche. No trivialisation of human suffering, no questioning of it either. An open ear and a helping hand for all.

All of this, however you put it, is a long way away from present day life, let alone the music industry. Mental disorders are stigmatised, like anything else that is due to three things: dehumanisation of the one who is suffering from it, lack of exposure to person(s) facing these issues and lack of proper education about the same.

In the mean bit, the rising tide of anti-mental health stigma in the music industry has encouraged many artists to speak up about their own struggles. Here are some of them with their individual accounts with DSM-5 approved definitions of the mental illnesses they suffer from:

SCHIZOPHRENIA- a type of psychotic disorder that involves a major break from reality that effects every aspect of the individuals thinking, feelings and behaviour. Positive symptoms of schizoaffective disorder often being delusions, hallucinations, catatonia and disorganised thoughts and speech.

Syd Barret Schizophrenia Peter Green

1. Syd Barrett-

The founder and once upon a time lead vocalist of Pink Floyd, one of the most influential bands in rock history, suffered from violent fits of LSD-induced acute psychotic episodes and was in a perpetual state of paranoia.

Barret, during the tail-end of his time with Pink Floyd, had begun regularly going into several nervous breakdowns, suffering from auditory and visual hallucinations, disorganised speech, periods of catatonic behaviour and severe memory lapses, all signs of drug-induced Psychosis.

It is theorised by many that he suffered from some degree of Schizophrenia and/or some form of drug induced psychosis aggravated by abuse of psychedelic drugs. The growing degeneration of Barret’s mental and physical well-being led to Waters and the rest of the band to oust Barret from the band.

A sense of remorse pinched with guilt and rumination led the newly Gilmour and Waters led Pink Floyd to immortalise Barret through the song 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' featuring lyrics urging Barret to come back to his former self (looking at the complete change of personality his mental state had left him in), "Come on you raver, you seer of visions/Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner and shine!".

In his subsequent years after being kicked out of Floyd up till his death in the summer of 2006- the once extroverted, eccentric and curious Barret had now transformed into a reclusive introvert, muted from meaningful interactions with the rest of the world- often keeping his sister Rosemary as the only bridge between him and the outside world. Waters and co. still feel a sense of remorse and regret to ousting Barret, often wishing they had better understood his condition at the time to help Barret receive the treatment he never truly got.

2. Peter Green-

The late lead guitarist and founder of the legendary rock band Fleetwood Mac and a legendary figure in the music industry suffered from Schizophrenia as well. Diagnosed back in the 70’s, Green spent several years in treatment until, through constant support from his family, friends and fans world over he got a grip on how to handle his delusionparanoia related psychotic symptoms.

Treatment at the time, misguided by earlier research, included Electro-Convulsive therapy (ECT) which at that time involved purposefully inducing seizures on patients falling under the schizophrenic spectrum (often administered on Treatment Resistant Schizophrenics) by passing electricity through their brain bilaterally. This was the primary treatment given to Peter Green.

Without the use of anti-anxiety medication or anaesthetics, patients such as Green would often be left traumatised after the treatment or in severe cases left with several fractures, temporary memory loss and in rare cases, extreme nerve damage or death.

ECT thankfully now is rarely used in the treatment of Schizophrenia because of a lack of evidence suggesting it from being more effective than other forms of therapy. It is now usually administered on schizophrenics suffering from severe Cataonia.

He has always been very vocal about his struggles- "I was throwing things around and smashing things up. I smashed the car wind screen. The police took me to the station and asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said yes because I didn't feel safe going back anywhere else." "They gave me tranquilizers, and I didn't really know much about it. It was a struggle just to stay awake. You do not know what you are doing. You don't feel alive."

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)- Persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of witnessed traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others. This promotes a persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame) which in turn diminishes interest to participate in significant activities.

Eminem Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Lady Gaga

1. Eminem

Slim shady himself has long battled internal demons. He was brought up in the most unstable environment imaginable. He rose to fame from literally nothing. He came from a broken household, he lived a nomadic life, and the suicide of a close uncle and failing grades propelled Eminem toward becoming a disconnected, embittered high school drop-out. It definitely was a tumultuous experience.

With most people, early external chaos becomes internalised. In his adult life, he's been addicted to a pharmacy of drugs, and he's struggled with depression and anger. Such internal chaos tends to initiate vicious cycles of dysfunction. 

Predictably, Eminem's later life has been littered with conflict and controversy. He has married his high school sweetheart, Kim, twice. She has attempted suicide. They've divorced. He's been jailed for assault. Hell, he's been sued by his mother. That last one should say it all.

His life is a narrative of chaos continued. And the maladaptive mental processes fostered by his experiences and personality traits may be reflected in his music.

Eminem's unhealthy relationship to patterned misogyny and homophobia in his lyrics seems more personal than most. One senses that Eminem is not "performing" as much as he's "getting it out."

2. Lady Gaga

Mega-monster star Lady Gaga, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, admitted to suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gaga opened up on how she developed PTSD after being sexually assaulted repeatedly at the age of 19. she states that she developed PTSD as a result of being raped and also not processing that trauma.

“Traditionally, many associate PTSD as a condition faced by brave men and women that serve countries all over the world," she wrote. "While this is true, I seek to raise awareness that this mental illness affects all kinds of people, including our youth.”

The mental health of our youth is still at the forefront of Gaga’s mind.

Depression- Characterised in two separate mood disorders: Unipolar depression (long periods and excessive feelings of dread and helplessness) and Manic Depression or Bipolar Disorder (individuals may routinely shift through periods of euphoria to periods of excessive dread and helplessness).

Logic Clinical Depression Trent Reznor

1. Logic-

Sir Robert Bryson Hall II also known by his stage name Logic, is one of the finer rappers in the industry right now. But the fame that came with it took a toll on his personal life as he opened up about his internal battles with depression. "The last two-and-a-half years were probably the hardest years of my life, mentally," the rapper told Billboard in 2018. And ironically, his song "1-800-273-8255" -- which is the number of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- "led to depression," he said. "Everywhere you go, the conversation is about suicide -- wanting to kill yourself. Every interview, all the time, for a year straight."

2. Trent Reznor-

Trent Reznor, frontman and creator of legendary industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails has devoted much of his life’s work into sonically reproducing the violent gushes of depression that would haunt him throughout his career (especially around the time he produced ‘The Downward spiral’, became addicted to Black tar heroin (amongst other drugs) and regularly battled suicidal thoughts around the time of the release of ‘The Fragile’ on account to the album’s lack of popularity and the event of his grandmother’s unfortunate passing).

It’s safe to say that around the 90’s, Trent Reznor was the poster child for mental anguish. The proper proponent and personification of ‘the tortured artist’ stereotype. However, leaving superficiality in mass music culture opinions aside, a large chunk of mainstream rock and dance listeners in the 90’s who suffered with depression and other such mood disorders felt that they finally had an new artist who voiced not only the apathy and helplessness that erupts as symptoms of unipolar depression but also displayed sonically the feelings of angst and rage that brew due to the said helplessness.

Reznor, riddled with depression that was aggravated by his drug use, looked onto David Bowie for advice as to how to cope with substance abuse and his depression. Bowie, just coming out of his ‘Thin white duke’ period was a man who had just battled his own depression and come out the other side happily married, still making the music he loved (although in the 90’s ridiculed for his latest releases) and clean from any and all drug abuse. In an interview with the Guardian, Reznor said

““Downward Spiral felt like I had an unending bottomless pit of rage and self-loathing inside me and I had to somehow challenge something, or I’d explode. I thought I could get through by putting everything into my music, standing in front of an audience and screaming emotions at them from my guts … but after a while it didn’t sustain itself, and other things took over,”… “I was nearing the peak of my addiction, and his (Bowie’s) role to me was kind of mentor, big brother, friend, and also he’d give me kind of shamanish advice.”

Reznor and Bowie on the streets of NY for the "I'm afraid of Americans" Music video

Just as Iggy pop helped Bowie cope from the throes of Depression, Bowie helped Reznor gain a reason to fight on and soon, recover during Reznor's blue period.

The same went for Michael Stipe to Thom Yorke, Rick Rubin to The Beastie Boys (Rick Rubin to a lot of musicians..)musical mentorships have helped many artists at every rung of their careers find a helping hand that understands what they are going through- often helping out with any mental illnesses they maybe facing.

However, now is the time, looking at how well music can influence mass cultural perception of mental illness, mental health and coping with mental illnesses, that we as an audience accept and actively do our best to help our musical idols. This will not only have a positive effect on their music and their life value but the amount of people their music will affect positively also quadruples. A living example of the same can be seen in Tyler, The creator.

Through the sharing of more such struggles and constant education of mental illnesses and their symptoms, not only can we as an audience make one of the most viciously exploitative industries more hospitable for artists but also positively impact their fans suffering from mental illnesses or just any severity of trauma and unhappiness.

We wanted to leave you with a Spotify playlist housing songs that sonically personify the 3 mental illnesses highlighted above...and this very adorable picture of Micheal Stipe and Thom Yorke.

The Spotify Playlist:


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Unknown member
Oct 07, 2020

Well researched article on mental health of musicians. Learned about the connection between mental health and creativity. Good job


Unknown member
Oct 07, 2020

Priya Desai,

Well written piece on music, musicians and their travails with mental issues,often grave. We enjoy their music, see the associated glitz but often are unaware of their internal struggles. Authors have done a good job of providing a glimpse into this less known world. Cheers.


Unknown member
Oct 07, 2020

Such a well-researched post on this very important, topical topic. Music can heal us all as well as the artists who are troubled. Will listen to the spotify playlist shared at the end soon.

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