Two weeks ago we awoke to the shocking and tragic news that Keith Flint iconic frontman and dancer with The Prodigy had been found dead at his home in Essex at the age of just 49 years. Last week it was confirmed that he had taken his own life.
Speculation focussed on the breakdown of his marriage and the size of his workload touring with the Prodigy, as contributing factors to his untimely death. But Keith is just the latest in a long line of successful musicians who have taken their own lives. From Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith and Ian Curtis to the tragic death in 2017 of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, K-Pop star Jonghy and Scott Hutchinson, who tragically took his own life last year. Suicide is a killer not just in the music industry but in everyday life.
Author and mental health advocate Matt Haig reacting to the news of Keith Flint’s dead tweeted “Death by suicide is, usually, death by illness. It is not an inevitable tragedy of the gifted. There is no such thing as a person ‘too beautiful for this world’. The tortured artist mythologising loved by rock journos helps absolutely no-one when they are ill. Acknowledging mental illness is not ‘playing victim’. It’s not even a weakness. It’s something you experience. You can be strong and ill. You often have to be.”
On the face of it these artists often have everything to live for, enjoying material wealth, fame and success yet the pressure of being a famous artist, the treadmill of touring, the anti-social hours, the scrutiny of social media, and the lure of substances often make for a toxic environment for creative individuals like Amy Winehouse who open their heart in their songs and are sensitive in real life. The rock and roll myth that glamourises the tortured artist isn’t helpful to our understanding of suffering or the individual stories of mental ill health experienced by artists in the music industry where a ‘rock’n’roll’ lifestyle has been encouraged and glorified.
“I’ve heard several conversations in the past where the main concern was how to make sure artists can ‘thrive’ in a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle,” Christine Brown, director of external affairs at HMUK, told Billboard. “While that lifestyle certainly exists, if we as an industry are endorsing that lifestyle, we clearly aren’t looking after the health and wellbeing of those working in music the way that we should.”
Erstwhile tin-foil hat wearer and sometime frontman of The Icicle Works, Ian McNabb claimed that Flint’s death wasn’t “dignified” because he had a “a million in the bank” and a “working dick” but this is at the heart of a central misunderstanding of depression and suicide. It’s an illness that doesn’t discriminate, you can be rich, well known, successful and seemingly idolised yet you can still feel despairing, hopeless and worthless. You can still be ill. That is the contradiction of an illness that doesn’t care how much you have in the bank or how many records you have sold. Of course, wealth can make you more comfortable but it doesn’t make you immune from mental illness, depression or suicide. Suffering is universal in the human condition. This flippancy in the face of depression and suicide and some people’s unhelpful and ignorant views of it, only add to that stigma. The person who commits suicide is called selfish, yet in their mind, they have lost all hope, in their own minds the world is unbearable, they think they are doing the world and their loved ones favour if they disappear if they take their own life.
A study of music industry published in November 2016, found that 71% of respondents believed they had suffered from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety, while 69% reported they had suffered from depression. This is a more than threefold increase over findings by the U.K. Office for National Statistics, which indicate around one in five of the national population suffers from anxiety or depression. Even more concerning, 57% of those respondents who reported struggling with mental health did not receive treatment and 53% reported that it was difficult to find help. Another study found out that “musicians die 25 years younger than [the] average person.” So if anything studies show that those in the industry are often under more pressure, stress and experience more factors that might lead them to become unwell.
I am lucky to have never felt suicidal but I have experienced twenty years of mental ill health, anxiety and depression of varying degrees for a long time. When I was 19 I had felt my heart race, my mind felt like it was trapped in fear, I thought I was dying. I went to my doctor he said I was having a panic attack. There were times when I felt so anxious I couldn’t leave the house very often for months; there are days when I can’t get up such is the crippling fatigue; there are mornings when I wake with my chest in a vice, palpitations and racing thoughts.
In the past few years, I have experienced an emptiness, a numbness, a depression that is often unaffected by the good things that happen in my life. So whilst on the face of it my work and personal life are going well, I can still feel awful. I have days where I feel nothing emotionally. Flat. You end up blaming yourself because you don’t feel ‘happy’, which can make you feel worse. Medication, exercise and talking therapy can help but there is no cure, just ways of managing your symptoms. Of course, I have no idea how it would be to be a famous artist and cope with these issues.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, and 75% of all suicides are by men. A lifetime of being told to “man up” or “bottle it up” coupled with a feeling of failure and a collapse in male identity have been contributing factors in an increase in male mental ill health and suicide, a problem clearly magnified by professions like being a musician or a famous person. And exacerbated by Tory austerity and cuts to badly needed talking therapies and mental health services in this country.
For people in the music industry with its spotlight and ups and downs, and euphoria and lows of performance stress is even more magnified. Failure and rejection are also often part of the package. “The industry is brutally competitive and only a very few make it to a successful career,” Peter Leigh told the Independent earlier this year, Leigh is CEO of the charity Key Changes which provides recovery services for young people and adults affected mental health disorders.
“Some of the triggering factors of the problems we see in the music community include self-doubt and stress brought about by rejection and failure, poor decision making based on bad advice and exploitation. The fact that record sales peak immediately after an artist’s death is an illustration of the often callous power of the media and the market.”
From Charli XCX to Professor Green, Olly Jackson, Zayne Malik and Stormzy, the list of successful artists who have spoken about their experiences of depression and suicidal thoughts is long in the music industry. Here are just a few examples that I picked out from artists in the industry over the last twenty years.
In 1998, Janet Jackson spoke about her own battle with depression. “I remember, even after the ‘Rhythm Nation’ tour in 1990, when I was in my early 20s, I was really bummed out,” she told the The Washington Post. “Looking back on it now, it was depression.”
Jackson continued “It hits a lot of people – and a lot of artists – and I didn’t know that. Nobody ever talked about that in my family – I still haven’t talked to anybody in my family about it.”
Demi Lovato checked herself into rehab in order to work on her mental health and has lived in sober communities in a bid to tackle addiction and bipolar disorder. In 2014, she made a documentary, Demi Lovato: Stay Strong, which detailed her recovery and the lows that led her to seek treatment.
“I just think mental illness is something people need to learn more about and the stigma needs to be taken away from,” the singer told People, after launching her initiative Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health.
“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.”
In 2010, Kanye West – spoke about how he thought about ending his own life, he has also been very public about his diagnosis on twitter and the media. “There were times that I contemplated suicide. I will not give up on life again, there are so many people that will never get the chance to have their voice heard. I do it for them”.
Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell spoke about how he had lived with depression in a revealing interview from the years prior to his death. “If you’re depressed long enough, it’s almost a comfort, a state of mind that you’ve made peace with because you’ve been in it so long. It’s a very selfish world.”
“For me, I always had one foot in this very dark, lonely, isolated world. Then about eight years ago [he was 42 at the time of this interview] I got very dark and there was a ton of isolation. I had to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do. Like I had to admit that I made all the mistakes I assumed I would never make. I changed pretty much everything you can change. The city that I lived in, every person that I spent time with. I got a divorce, but then fell in love in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of, and then felt loved in a way I didn’t know I was capable of. I quit drinking, quit smoking. And suddenly I had all this energy.”
“My experience is you have to allow the expression to come and not be so eager to check it or critique it or be embarrassed by it or shut it down. There’s a risk in that. If I allow myself to get swept away into too much self-importance, self-involvement, just thinking about what’s going on with me, then that seems to bring on certain feelings. Suddenly I’m a little less than who I feel I really am. I’ve always been my own worst enemy in terms of having a negative attitude towards myself and what I could achieve”.
“But if you keep your emotional life readily available and your relationships with people the same way, you don’t constantly bury your emotions and let things fester under the rug. I realized that if I can reveal my emotions in the songwriting world, then I can do it in the real world.”
Aidan James Stevens the mastermind behind London based electronic/industrial act You The Living told us of his experiences with depression, suicidal thoughts and chronic illness. “The “black dog” doesn’t care about who you are – whether you’re the guy on the street or a world-conquering rock god – but as a chronically ill musician, you could say that I’m a classic case. However, that would be putting the cart before the horse. Like many other teenagers who were struggling with depression, music gave me an outlet for the pain and frustration caused by bullying, a difficult home life, and the isolation that comes with Asperger’s Syndrome. Before I picked up a guitar, my only coping mechanisms were self-harm and destructive emotional outbursts.
“In 2014 and 2015, I reached my lowest point. Despite having a loving and supportive wife and living in my beloved Camden Town, my illness had evolved into a crippling disability. Every moment was filled with agony and I was having upwards of 20 seizures a day. I was constantly in and out of hospital. Darkness had consumed my art as much as it had consumed me; You The Living’s 2015 album, XXXI included a song that detailed my suicide plan, ‘Sleeper’. Despite some improvement in my condition and the cessation of the seizures, the feelings of hopelessness and guilt over being a burden to those I love still haunt me.”
“For me and many others, music is catharsis and therapy. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a huge problem with depression and suicide in the industry. This is further exacerbated by the harsh and isolating conditions we face in the music business. Despite having the support of my management, it can often feel like I’m fighting a lonely battle against all the obstacles we face as artists – most notably the fight to be heard. This creates a vicious circle: when your therapy can give you new reasons to be depressed, the feeling of defeatism can be hard to combat.
That doesn’t change the fact that I love what I do. Music gives me purpose and a reason to live. Without it, I am nothing.”
Sinead O’Connor has had a long battle with bipolar and suicidal thoughts dating back to 2003; she has also been blacklisted and ignored by an industry that doesn’t offer enough care for those suffering or at risk in it. A brutal self-recorded video filmed in her hotel room in New Jersey in 2017 shone a light on the depths of her condition, the broken singer sobbed: “My entire life is revolving around not dying, and that’s not living.”
She continued, offering a snapshot into life with a mental health condition: “Mental illness, it’s like drugs, it doesn’t give a shit who you are, it’s the stigma… I’m invisible, I don’t matter a shred to anyone.”
A report in 2017, showed that there were just 1,459 NHS mental health in-patient beds for young people in England, of which just 124 are in low-security units – at a time when suicide is the biggest cause of death among young men. Patients can wait up to six months for a bed in an appropriate unit – its a scandalous situation for young people at greatest risk.
With her exquisite 2017 album A Stranger in the Alps, Californian artist Phoebe Bridgers meditated upon depression and anxiety with songs like ‘Motion Sickness’ and ‘Funeral’. A haunting slice of majestic melancholia that’s up there with Mazzy Star. When she sings “Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time” Phoebe’s crumpled tone and cutting poetic couplets have the ability to stop you in your tracks. She says her music is “what comes when she is at her most honest, without specific intention, and she aims to be in her songs the person she is in the world.”
Singer Scott Hutchison, a man I met when I put on his band Frightened Rabbit in Cardiff in 2008, took his own life last year, in tragic news when his body was found after he’d been reported missing. Prior to his death the 36-year-old Edinburgh songwriter spoke candidly about having suicidal thoughts, telling Noisey that their 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight was a “hopeful record” that spoke to the fact “I didn’t kill myself”.
Speaking about ‘Floating In The Forth’, which includes the haunting lyric “Am I ready to leap, is there peace beneath the roar of the Forth road bridge?” a Scott said: “It’s a real thing. It’s a real thought”.
“I’ve gone 90 per cent of the way through that song in real life. But at the same time, it’s gratifying. It’s heartening to know that I’ve been through that, and I’m stood there performing that song, alive and feeling good about it.”
In the same interview, he spoke of his constant struggle with his mood. “On a day-to-day basis, I’m a solid six out of ten. I don’t know how often I can hope for much more than that,” he said.
Another shocking suicide came last year when DJ Avicii – real name Tim Bergling – was found dead in Muscat, Oman. Investigations found he’d taken his own life by his own self-inflicted wounds. This came two years after retiring from a heavy touring schedule and telling his management that he would die if he didn’t take a break.
Everyone experiences depression differently, each person who takes their own life for different reasons. Keith Flint was an icon, a man who had an unmistakable grin and sense of mischief and energy in his vocals and on stage. That he felt he could no longer carry on is another sad tragedy but he must have felt he had reached his limit. As someone who has experienced mental ill health, I recognise the distortions you can feel in mood, body and in your mind. Every day you are fighting a battle nobody knows about and wealth and success far from making you better can actually make the crushing contrast between how you feel and your material wealth and fame, the pain you feel and the pleasure you give others, all the more heartbreaking.
I was shocked and saddened to learn that he took his own life but don’t know why, but I do know that unless you have walked in someone else’s shoes you will never know what it’s like to experience their suffering and how they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We must do better to listen and support those around us, our friends and loved ones. Mental health services must be better and desperately need more funding. Sufferers need to speak up and reach out and musicians need more support from those around them and that manage them to navigate a world that’s often unreal and full of high demands. Maybe we should think a little more before we offer our views on these subjects, when someone has just passed away in tragic circumstances or when we don’t understand what has happened and why. Compassion and empathy are two things that cost nothing in the face of a rising epidemic of mental ill health.
If you have been affected by any issues mentioned in this article, you can contact The Samaritans for free on 116 123 or get in touch with any of the following mental health organisations: