Must artists suffer to create their greatest work?
For centuries, scientists, theologians and philosophers have studied the relationship between creativity and mental illness.
Take the so-called “27 Club,” which confers mystical meaning on the deaths at age 27 of musicians like Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and others.
The club can go beyond music, but has been offered as proof that artists are predisposed to everything from addiction to suicidal tendencies. That is, artists are sensitive by nature, and as they mature into their abilities, so does their risk of dying young.
The reality is that 27 isn’t a magic number. However, a disproportionate number of artists experience mental illness, according to Psychology Today.
Recent examples are producer and DJ Avicii, who committed suicide at age 28, and rapper Mac Miller, 26, who died from a drug overdose.
Over the years, Psychology Today has published scores of articles on unique, innovative, courageous traits and behaviors and their impact on mental health.
Writer Susan Bali, M.D. notes several key factors in the relationship between creativity and depression.
“Luckily — though creatives experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population — the extremes of highs and lows tend to be brief, balanced by long periods of normal affect, or euthymia,” she explains. “During these respite periods, creatives frequently reflect upon and draw from memories and experiences of their darkest times to create their best art.”
Overall, such creatives stand out and are viewed as oddballs, Bali adds. For many, this notoriety is a byproduct of their talent, not necessarily a goal.
That was the case for Andre 3000, a composer and musician who also acts under the name Andre Benjamin.
As part of the hip-hop duo OutKast, he released his first album in 1996. His face and music were quickly well-known. He went on to have multiple hits and received offers to act, model and more.
The more successful he became, the more “trapped” he felt, he told GQ in October 2017.
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“I didn’t notice it until I became an entertainer,” he explained, noting he was diagnosed with a social disorder. “I don’t know if it’s the shock of all kind of people coming up to you, or the expectations, but I got to this place where it was hard for me to be in public without feeling watched or really nervous.”
This eventually caused him to retreat from public life, limit public appearances and release music sparingly.
“(I)t started to bleed over into my normal life,” he told GQ. “I’d just meet new people, and I would freak out or have to leave.”
Andre 3000’s willingness to talk about his struggles makes a difference to his fans. He has been open about the conflict between creating and self-care.
Such candor from artists isn’t new territory; many have shared feelings of anxiety, loneliness, isolation and rage.
However, it seems more artists share sooner in their careers — before there is a significant, public incident. The work they create sometimes illustrates this: They are normal people with normal lives. Part of that normality is mental illness — a condition, not a character flaw.
It’s not uncommon now for anyone from Ellie Goulding to Linkin Park to explore such themes. Recently, the performer Logic brought widespread attention to National Suicide Prevention hotline with the song titled “800-273-8255,” sparking an ongoing discussion.
In mid-2018, Juice Wrld released “Lucid Dreams,” a song in which the speaker is brutally honest about emotional instability and raw emotions.
Some worry heavy themes will have a negative impact on particularly sensitive and vulnerable fans.
Yes, it’s tough to listen to young people sing along with lyrics like, “It’s to the point where I love and I hate you/And I cannot change you, so I must replace you.”
The lyrics also are an expression of reality. To talk with and listen to teens, we need to be open to what they’ll say. The voices of their artists offer us insight into what matters to them.
For teens, this honesty tells them others are willing to empathize. To know that an artist you admire has grappled with similar issues is essential. And when a loved one respects the art that resonates with you, it can show you that you’re not alone.