Let me start by saying that this list isn’t to glorify those with mental illness, like they deserve a medal for being stuck with this affliction, but rather to make music-lovers aware that some of their favorite musicians have struggled with mental illness, whether they overcame it or not. In this list you’ll find artists who openly spoke out about their illness and artists who preferred to keep it quiet; in this list you’ll find both the diagnosed and undiagnosed. What’s important to remember is how frequently mental illness, in its many vexing forms, falls upon those who are artists. Some consider it a blessing; others a curse. As you’ll read, whether it was because of mental illness or other external forces, some of these stories end in tragedy, but it doesn’t have to (To educate yourself on mental illness, which is still stigmatized in this country, please check out NAMI.) Some musicians I wanted to add that could’ve possibly had mental illness or definitely did were John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Ludwig van Beethoven, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Alanis Morissette, Roky Erickson, Tom Waits and Stevie Nicks.
Number Ten: Syd Barrett. The late Syd Barrett, a former and founding member of a progressive rock group Pink Floyd, was never officially diagnosed with mental illness, but many believe that he may have been bipolar or schizophrenic. Many also believe Barrett’s drug use, particularly psychedelics, was the spark that ignited his mental illness. Members like David Gilmour and Roger Waters both have commented or wrote songs about mental illness, which many believe were inspired by Barrett’s physical departure from the band in 1968 and his mental departure from reality overall. In particular, the band’s 1975 album, Wish You Were Here, was created as a tribute to Barrett; ironically, an unrecognizable, almost incoherent Barrett stopped by the studio while the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which brought Waters to tears. Said Waters of the situation, “I’m very sad about Syd. Of course, he was important and the band would never have f***ing started without him because he was writing all the material. It couldn’t have happened without him but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him…” Although Barrett recorded two solo albums, he eventually withdrew further from the world to focus on painting and gardening, and he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006.
Number Nine: Daniel Johnston. Daniel Johnston knew he was going to be an artist from a young age. He would make homemade tapes for random people, and even Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt featuring one of Johnston’s album covers. However, Johnston suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which forced him into several mental institutions for most of his life. Many debate whether these illnesses had an effect on his low-fi music, or if Johnston simply prefers recording demos in his basement. He’s created seventeen studio albums and three live albums, as well as having worked on various side projects and collaborations. He now resides in Texas, living with his parents, and he still records and writes music.
Number Eight: Ian Curtis. A co-founding member of Joy Division, Ian Curtis is known for being a huge influence in the post-punk movement. While there are different accounts of who Curtis was as a person (a man who abandoned his wife or a people-pleaser, who constantly was afraid of letting people down,) there is no doubt how talented he was as a lyricist. It’s unknown how far back Curtis’s depression went, but those close to him know that as Joy Division became more and more famous, Curtis’s depression worsened. In 1980, about to embark on their first tour in the US, band mates were shocked to learn that their irreplaceable member and friend had committed suicide by hanging. Although his wife Deborah said that Curtis confided in her that he didn’t want to live past his 20s, it’s clear there were other issues at work as well, including Curtis’s disintegrating marriage to Deborah and his frequent seizures, which were caused by his having epilepsy. While with Joy Division, Curtis helped create two albums, as well as writing the band’s first charting hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Number Seven: Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson is known for being the leader and co-founder of the Beach Boys; however he eventually was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Before 1968, Wilson was the key songwriter for the band, but his role as this became non-existent at this time, as he was “spending the majority of his time in bed, sleeping, doing drugs and overeating.” After the release of the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds, his disease caused him to have nervous breakdowns, hear voices and become unpredictable, which halted the release of the band’s follow-up album, Smile. However, after extensive medication use and therapy, Wilson continued to record and perform as a solo artist. He’s created eleven solo albums spanning from 1988 to 2015.
Number Six: Sinéad O’Connor. When you think of Sinéad O’Connor, you probably remember her most for her 1989 cover-hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Troubled with notions of suicides, and after seeing therapists and visiting the hospital, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 30s. She related being bipolar “as a gaping hole in the center of (her) being.” She eventually found the right medication, and “within half an hour it was like cement going over the hole.” However, after eight years of taking medications, which included anti-psychotics, the artist came to the realization that she was suffering not from bipolar disorder, but from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She now speaks out about the importance of getting a correct diagnosis and how some doctors will easily over-medicate someone when in reality, the person needs extensive therapy, not medication. Going off the meds was not easy for her, as all professionals know that you have to wean yourself off; even though she found out she wasn’t bipolar, the process of going off this meds ironically gave her bipolar symptoms. Despite PTSD not being a technical mental illness, I included Sinead on this list because of the importance of those with mental illness receiving a correct diagnosis.
Number Five: Lou Reed. Lou Reed, known both for his solo work and for his work in The Velvet Underground, was quite possibly mentally ill, although no one knows for sure. If you’re a Reed fan, surely you heard about his hospitalizations and electro-shock treatments; the latter which supposedly were influenced by his parents who wanted to cure his “homosexual urges.” According to his sister, however, the “issues” began as early as junior high, describing Reed as “challenging, unfriendly and provocative.” It was when he was a freshman in NYC when his parents thought he had his first nervous breakdown, which they believed was rooted in schizophrenia. It was then that the artist began receiving psychiatric care and ECT; however Reed’s sister believes that her parents didn’t put Lou in these conditions because of homophobia, but because they didn’t know what else to do. In his younger years, Reed suffered from panic attacks and social phobias, withdrawing himself from society unless “it was on his terms.” It was during this time that he turned to music. When Reed entered the rock and roll scene, he began using drugs and alcohol, which many believe was his way of self-medicating as mental illness had an even bigger stigma around it back then. However, this caused him to become more depressed and anxious, especially in a social setting. Finally, with the right type of care and support from his family, he began to recover and eventually would achieve his fame. Reed passed in 2013 from liver disease.
Number Four: Ray Davies. Ray Davies is known for being the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Kinks. However, what might not be as well-known is that he suffered from bipolar disorder. In an interview, he said, “I’d just come offstage and sunk a bottle of downers because I wanted to kill myself. Then I changed my mind. I was dressed as a dandy, it might have looked like a clown to everyone else. But even clowns have bad days.” The Kinks created about 24 albums in their career, spanning from 1964 to 1993; Ray Davies created four solo albums thus far, spanning from 1985 to 2007.
Number Three: Nick Drake. Nick Drake is considered by many to have been a song-writing genius. That is, a genius whose brilliance wasn’t appreciated until after his death. At about age 22, Drake began to suffer from depression and insomnia, although symptoms easily could have been present at an earlier age. The artist passed away in 1974, overdosing on antidepressants. Although coroners called it suicide, friends have said that the cause was really due to a deep-rooted unhappiness. But clearly unhappiness and suicide are related, so no one but Drake himself knows the reasons why. Fans can only speculate that his lack of fame, which probably resulted in his feeling misunderstood, as well as his disease, were the triggers of his death; this is a huge shame because if you examine his body of work, while only being three albums, you can tell he poured his heart out into every song. While tracks like “Black Eyed Dog” described his battle with depression, even uplifting tracks like “Fly” contain a plea of pain: “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face.”
Number Two: Ellliott Smith Many may not know this, but Elliot Smith was sober at the time of his death in 2003. However, his death, which was due to two stab wounds to the chest, is still a mystery; was it suicide or homicide? No one knows. It’s unfortunate, but many remember Smith for his excessive drug use, which he makes mention of in some of his songs. It was clear to everyone around him that he was depressed, not only because of his self-medicating but because he told multiple people that he would or wanted to kill himself. He was also a cutter. Like many who feel this way, Smith wanted to spare those close to him by killing himself slowly with drugs; but no matter how much he took, he couldn’t overdose. In a very eye-opening article, people close to Smith opened up after his death about Smith possibly being abused as a child by his stepfather. Many believe this was the catalyst for Smith’s depression and drug use, the latter which worked for awhile in suppressing the traumatic memory. Since then, Smith’s stepfather has denied these allegations, and even friends of Smith claim they’re unsure of how true this is because when Smith would talk about it, his memory wasn’t clear and his story had holes. One can only hope that in death, Smith got the peace and closure he so desperately longed for in life.
Elliott created five albums during his career, achieving success for songs like “Miss Misery,” which was used in Good Will Hunting. After his death, his family released From a Basement on the Hill, although many feel the album was censored. Still, Smith has a cult following of fans that love and can relate to his music. Personally, when I think of Elliot Smith, a Pearl Jam quote comes to mind: “Take my hand, not my picture.” I don’t think Elliot was ever after fame, but simply wanted to express himself creatively the best he could. It makes sense that he couldn’t connect with the business and publicity side of music; he probably just needed to feel like someone else was in his shoes.
Number One: Demi Lovato. I chose to put Demi Lovato at number one, as she is the most recent musician, to my knowledge, to come out and openly discuss her illness. Lovato is bipolar, but also struggled in the past with an eating disorder, drug addiction, and cutting. Specifically, she told Good Morning America that she suffered with bulimia since about age 8 due to bullying, and she began cutting around age 11 as a way to “cope with her emotions and depression.” The pop singer first entered treatment in 2010 and since then has spoken about her struggles: “This is an ongoing process and the hardest part about these diseases is that they’re things that I’m going to have to face every day for the rest of my life. I’m going to mess up and I’m not going to be perfect, but as long as I try every day to get better and better myself, then I’m one step ahead of where I was before.” She also has said that she keeps her disease in check by taking medication, and that she is “living proof that someone can live, love and be well with bipolar disorder when they get the education, support and treatment they need.” She has since been raising money for mental health awareness through the Lovato Treatment Scholarship Program and the “Hope Dealer” campaign. Lovato is definitely brave for being so honest and forthright about her illness, and because of this, she will remain a positive role model for those struggling with the same issues.