The Tortured Artist?

Analyzing the Relationship Between Music and Mental Health

by Jack Hanson

As we entered into the 21st century, especially the mid-2010s, discourse surrounding mental health began to arise. The rising phenomenon of mental health struggles, as seen in the uptick in anxiety and depression as the increasing number of loneliness worldwide, has ushered in concern over the questions of uncertainty, fear, and sadness in society.

This particularly rang true in the music industry. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Psychiatric Research, musicians demonstrated what was labeled as “greatly elevated” numbers of clinical depression and stress overall. The study also found that levels of suicidality amongst musicians are five times higher than that of the general population. 

Of course, to any music fan, this is not surprising. Whether it be the self-harm patterns of Amy Winehouse to the suicidality of Kurt Cobain, listeners have seen the effects of subpar mental state amongst the most gifted musicians. While the media and industry as a whole glamorize this, the music world suffers greatly from the loss of such phenomenal artists. What is it about musical creatives that may predispose them to more negative psychopathology (including addiction)? How may we begin a dialogue in which mental health may be treated as more critical to the humanity of musical artists?

To analyze this, first, we must consider the possibility of how temperament, sensitivity, and even neuroticism (one of the five markers of personality) coincide with creativity. To study this, researcher Jennifer O. Grimes went to three heavy metal/hard rock festivals and asked musicians how they would describe themselves. Grimes found that in relation to extroversion/introversion (one of the main facets of personality), musicians reported that they needed a healthy amount of solitude and seclusion. While one would think this may be due to nervousness around people, the social reclusion was reported in response to artists’ own rumination, worries about the future, suspicions, as well as feeling overwhelmed by philosophical ideation. What’s more, it was found that those who wrote melodies reported feeling a heightened sensitivity, higher anxiety, and great emotional lability. No doubt these outcomes are interesting.

However, other studies have shown that the correlation isn’t as strong. As referenced in Getty Magazine, a 2019 study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) assessed whether psychopathology is more characteristic in major creatives (not limited to musicians but all creative artists and scientists). The researchers discovered results to be indicative of the opposite: that individuals without any history of psychiatric illness scored higher on a test of creativity compared to those with a history of psychiatric illness. Based on these findings, Robert M. Bilder proposes we ask a better question: How can we take a more nuanced look at the relationship between creativity and mental well-being? As one can imagine, this presents limitless opportunities to explore different inquiries.

While the above findings invite us to reassess the relationship between creativity and neurodivergence, it is not enough to look at only personality in answering this question. One must examine the environment that musicians (as well as all artists) find themselves in. Reports find that demands in working environments are often tiresome. In an article released by The Guardian, journalist Luke Morgan Britton details a phenomenon known as ‘post-performance depression’, in which after moments of ecstasy coming from performing, the major arousal can lead to a depression of affect, leaving the performer feeling exhausted or sad. This may be exacerbated by the conditions of touring: little sleep, constant traveling, time away from friends and family, and the risky party culture involving drugs on the road. It is easy to see that these behaviors can make for volatile, often negative changes in mental well-being.

To make matters more complex, musicians often face financial and economic instability in their lives. In Performer Mag, Dr. Janice Johnston cites that 33% of musicians do not have health insurance coverage. In a healthcare system at the intersection of classism and privatization, musicians who do face issues with mental illness (which it seems they are predisposed to) often have no ability to seek treatment. 

In these ways, it is apparent that musicians may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms (not just substance abuse, but also self-harm and even suicide). In a society where it seems the odds are stacked against artists, from their possible neurodivergence to healthcare policy, this presents an incredibly dangerous predicament that has already proven destructive for some of the greatest artists to ever grace the stage. 

So where do we go from here? Perhaps a good starting place would be to look from a psychological research perspective. As mentioned previously, it seems as if the results we yield from a simple causational model between temperament and creativity are mixed, perhaps requiring us to fine-tune our question as to what specifically we are looking for (not just looking for simplistic causation or correlation between temperament and creativity, but something deeper). 

From this point of view, we may expound on what Dr. Bilder asks us about the relationship between mental well-being and creativity. How do mental well-being and creativity inform one another and in what ways? Of course, one may imagine that creativity serves as an outlet for those struggling with their mental well-being. Perhaps the more perplexing dynamic is how mental well-being feeds into creativity. One idea to investigate would be from an interesting finding: if we were to draw on research mentioned above from Dr. Jennifer Grimes, we may hypothesize that greater emotional lability and even scope of emotional depth may contribute to meaningful, richer emotional works and performances from artists. In other words, access to a wider, deeper bank of emotions may enable an artist to draw from more resources than one who may not have this same bank. It will be important to research further into inquiries like this in the future. 

But what about healthcare and union concerns? Well, from a policy standpoint, the industry must prioritize radical labor politics, demanding more transparency, inclusivity, and a will to redistribute wealth so that all artists may benefit. In this mission, collectivism will be key to creating a more egalitarian and safer environment for musicians. To extend this argument, mental healthcare should not just be handled by unions, but within the music industry itself. Billboard Magazine indicates that artist development programs may be a perfect site for mental health maintenance and reaching out for treatment. This will give artists the tools they need to live the healthiest lives possible. 

Linked to this, there must be a reformist endeavor in synthesizing a comprehensive approach to healthcare that is within reach for all. There are multiple steps in how this may be accomplished. Access to healthcare must happen in a setting where there is no stigma in reaching out for psychiatric help. Mental health care professionals must disseminate evidence-based treatments to a wider population, even if that means combating and fighting health insurance companies. Holding governments and institutions of healthcare to a higher standard is absolutely necessary for promoting the humanity of all people.

Another change that we undertake is undoing the glamorous myth of ‘the tortured artist’. An article written by Jack Neath on Medium states how this myth is dangerous. By pushing forward the narrative of the ‘tortured artist’, not only do we objectify the artist, but we also convince them that they must struggle in order to create art. This reductive trope must be eliminated in order to create a more creative, healthier band of artists.

Artists serve in one of the noblest professions in the world. They challenge our ways of thinking and feeling, they relate to us when no one else can, and they motivate us to live lives worth living. It is only fair that we synthesize a better system for musicians to live so they have longer lifespans not just to produce their art, but to lead fulfilling lives. 

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” 

The Dalai Lama

By Jack Hanson

Jack Hanson is an aspiring Clinical Psychologist, looking to research new psychological treatments and treat those who are suffering. Jack holds a Bachelors of Music in Music Business from New York University as well as postbaccalaurate education in psychology from Columbia University. Through the education from these two institutions, he aspires to help people, including artists, build richer lives.