Music and Mental Illness

2010 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Romantic-era composer Robert Schumann. Schumann was perhaps the archetypal moody artist, alternating between blazing bouts of creativity and periods of antisocial depression. It’s a common cliché that has, all too often, been sustained by sad life stories punctuated by tragic endings. Schumann died a broken man in an insane asylum.

More recently, we’ve seen gifted musicians like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith take their own lives after struggling with depression.

There are many, many others who fit the cliché (Tchaikovsky, Billie Holiday, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis…the list goes on and on). Why are there so many artists and musicians that struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness?

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Anthony Storr was a British psychiatrist who wrote about music and mental illness in his book Music and the Mind. He suggested that there might be a link between mental illness and creativity – he wrote: “The ability to think creatively, to make new links between concepts, is more often found in families which include a member who is diagnosable as mentally ill.”

I can’t be absolutely certain, but I’d be surprised if Schumann, Cobain and Smith weren’t at their happiest when they were writing and playing music. We’ve all experienced a moment in our lives when music has helped us get through a rough patch; when listening to or singing a particular song has just seemed to simultaneously hurt so good and help mitigate the pain.

Is it also possible that, for Schumann, Cobain and Smith, music was almost like self-medication, a treatment for their mental ailments?

I put together a short musical essay about music and mental illness that first aired on CBC Radio 2’s In Concert on Sunday October 24th, 2010. For info on all the music I used in the piece, please look here and scroll down to the list of musical works.

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