Turning Pain into Art
The recent suicides of musicians such as Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell have opened a dialogue on a topic that is not acknowledged nearly enough—the pervasiveness of mental illness in artists, particularly musicians. Mental illnesses have unfortunately claimed many lives, but just as many musicians have also survived and thrived with their mental illnesses and have channeled their struggles into the art they have created. The works they have created have reached listeners who are also struggling to work through their mental illnesses, and their music can help listeners who may be struggling to feel less isolated.
Last year in August, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor worried fans when she posted a video online talking about her ongoing battle with mental illness. “My entire life is revolving around not dying, and that’s not living,” O’Connor said in the video. Another musician, Fiona Apple, promptly reached out to O’Connor with a message of love and support. Apple herself has talked about her own struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and empathized with O’Connor’s pleading. O’Connor, who struggles with Bipolar Disorder as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, later said, “there is a group of people who are absolutely afraid to open their mouths about mental illness, and that is rockers, people in the music business, famous people.” That statement holds up when examining musicians who have taken, or attempted to take, their own lives.
Elliott Smith openly struggled with depression throughout his life. Nick Drake, another folk guitarist, was the J.D Salinger of the music world. Drake expressed his difficulties through bluesy melodies and pained lyrics, writing music that was less “escapist” and more so a snapshot of one musician’s view of life at the time.
Both of these musicians made immeasurable contributions to folk music. Drake’s intricate riffs on blues perennials like “Cocaine Blues” and “Black Mountain Blues” inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, while Elliott Smith introduced chord progressions that became synonymous with 90s alternative rock.
Though these artists struggled with their mental illnesses, their ability to channel their pain into their art is inspirational to many. Without these musicians, today’s musical soundscape would be unrecognizable. Their lyrics have spanned across decades and reached the ears of listeners who may have felt sha
me or isolation in their depression, and their work has inspired many to pick up a guitar.
Other musicians, such as Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, are using their experiences and raised platform to shed light on less discussed mental illnesses, like Schizoaffective Disorder.
In 2016, Wilson published a memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. For Wilson, the beach isn’t just a place where the surf comes to play—it’s where life is renewed and made whole again. The “Good Vibrations” artist, an icon who is an irreplaceable feature of America’s landscape, used his mental illness as a point of growth into the man he is today.
Though the “tortured artist” trope can seem like romanticizing mental illness, these musicians share an experience that can help guide others who are also suffering.