In this article you will find artists who openly spoke out about their mental illness and those who preferred to keep it quiet. Some musicians we wanted to add that could’ve possibly had mental illness or definitely did were Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Ray Charles, Alanis Morissette, Ludwig van Beethoven, Eric Clapton, Tom Waits and Stevie Nicks.
Number One: 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 bi-polar or schizophrenic. Many also believe his psychedelic drug use 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 ’68 and his mental departure from reality overall. The band’s 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. Barrett passed away from pancreatic cancer in ’06.
Number Two: Ellliott Smith
Many people know that he was sober at the time of his death in ’03. However, his death, which was due to two stab wounds to the chest, is still a mystery; was it suicide or homicide? It’s unfortunate, but many remember Elliott Smith for his excessive drug use. The musician was depressed, not only because of his self-medicating but because he told multiple people that he wanted to kill himself. 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. Since then, his stepfather has denied these allegations, and even friends of Smith claim they’re unsure of how true this is because when he would talk about it, his memory wasn’t clear and his story had holes. Elliott Smith created 5 albums during his career, achieving success for songs like Miss Misery, which was used in Good Will Hunting.
Number Three: Daniel Johnston
He knew he was going to be an artist from a young age. Daniel would make homemade tapes for random people, and even Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt featuring one of Johnston’s album covers. However, he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which forced him into several mental institutions for most of his life. Fans debate whether these illnesses had an effect on his low-fi music, or if Johnston simply prefers recording demos in his basement. Johnston created 17 studio albums and 3 live albums, as well as having worked on various side projects and collaborations. On September 11, 2019, he was found dead from a suspected heart attack at his home in Waller, Texas.
Number Four: Ray Davies
Ray Davies is known for being the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Kinks. He also 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 band created about 24 albums in their career, spanning from ’64 to ’93; Ray Davies created 4 solo albums, spanning from ’85 to ’07.
Number Five: Brian Wilson
He is known for being the leader and co-founder of the Beach Boys; however the artist eventually was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Before ’68, Brian 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 therapy and medication use, the musician continued to record and perform as a solo artist.
Number Six: Lou Reed
Lou Reed, known 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 are 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.” In his younger years, Lou suffered from panic attacks and social phobias. It was during this time that he turned to music. When the artist entered the rock’n’roll scene, Lou 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. This caused him to become more depressed and anxious. With the right type of care and support from his family, Reed began to recover and eventually would achieve his fame. He passed in ’13 from liver disease.
Number Seven: Ian Curtis
A member of Joy Division, Ian is known for being a huge influence in the post-punk movement. There is no doubt how talented he was as a lyricist. It’s unknown how far back Curtis’s depression and mental illness went, but those close to him know that as Joy Division became more and more famous, Curtis’s depression worsened. In ’80 band mates were shocked to learn that their irreplaceable member and friend had committed suicide by hanging. Although his wife Deborah said that Ian confided in her that he didn’t want to live past his 20’s, it is clear there were other issues at work as well, including his disintegrating marriage to Deborah and his frequent seizures, which were caused by his having epilepsy. While with Joy Division, Ian Curtis helped create 2 albums, as well as writing the band’s first charting hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart.
Number Eight: Sinead O’Connor
When you think of O’Connor, you probably remember her ’89 cover-hit, Nothing Compares 2 U. Troubled with notions of suicides, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 30’s. The musician 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 8 years of taking medications, which included anti-psychotics, she came to the realization that she was suffering not from bipolar disorder, but from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Going off the medications was not easy for her. Even though she found out she wasn’t bipolar, the process of going off this medications ironically gave her bipolar symptoms.
Number Nine: Nick Drake
Nick Drake is considered to have been a song-writing genius. That is, a genius whose brilliance wasn’t appreciated until after his death. At about age 22, he began to suffer from depression and insomnia. He passed away in ’74, overdosing on antidepressants. People can only speculate that his lack of fame 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 3 albums, you can tell the musician 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.
Number Ten: Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato is the most recent musician to come out and openly discuss her illness. She 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 artist first entered treatment in ’10 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 is definitely brave for being so honest and forthright about her illness, and because of this, Demi Lovato will remain a positive role model for those struggling with the same issues. Thanks for reading.
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