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The Link Between Artistry and Mental Illness

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PHOTO: Billie Holiday performs in New York City in 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb.

Is there a link between creativity and mental illness? A study of jazz musicians from the genre’s Golden Age suggests there could be. Dr. Geoffrey Wills‘ 2003 study of 40 world renowned jazz musicians – stars like Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk – found that these musicians were four times more likely than the general population to suffer from a mood disorder. Even more striking, they were eight times more likely to have suffered drug addiction. More than half of them were addicted to heroin at some point in their lives. And the suicide rate was unusually high.

Also included in the study was jazz luminary Miles Davis (who is featured on the cover of this month’s issue of DIME), the artist behind My Kind of Blue, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz records of all time. Behind Davis’ creative genius, though, was a man who suffered hallucinations and persecutory delusions.  

Davis, like contemporaries Art Pepper and Bill Evans, developed an overwhelming cocaine habit. Pepper also suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and exhibited severe anxiety in the form of blood and telephone phobias.

Famous jazz pianist Bud Powell sought treatment on multiple occasions for schizophrenia.

And Billie Holiday, the smoky voice behind the song that TIME declared the “song of the century” – “Strange Fruit” – struggled with mental illness throughout her life, dying in 1959 likely as a consequence of her drug and alcohol addiction.

Those are just a few cases of mental illness.

Wills documented among some of the Jazz greats. He noted that the trend was “comparable to [research on] other creative people.” But does that necessarily mean that jazz and creativity are linked with mental illness?It might. Then again, it might not.

The living conditions jazz musicians of the era experienced may have contributed to mental illness. Living in extreme poverty and struggling to survive, Billie Holiday was arrested at age 15 for prostitution. And across the board, even jazz musicians who had “made it” were often poorly paid, and drugs and alcohol were readily available – poisons masquerading as antidotes.

Many of the standards of classic Americana today are jazz songs, but in its heyday in the 1940s and 50s, jazz was considered subversive. In the era of McCarthyism and segregation, being part of any movement that was considered subversive – whether political or artistic – promised to exact a toll. Being subversive while black came at an even greater price.

“Modern jazz was a revolutionary music that was rejected by the general public,” Dr. Wills told the BBC. “And heroin, like the music, was defiantly anti-establishment.”

During that time, Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was cracking down on drug use among jazz musicians. He assured Congress that his crackdown would not affect “the good musicians, but the jazz type.”

So what conclusions can we draw from Dr. Wills’ study? Certainly, we know that mental illness can happen to anyone – even the musical heroes and heroines of classic Americana. Conversely, though, we know this: Mental illness cannot kill talent, or artistry, or the human will to create. It can only suppress it.

We don’t highlight the high rates of mental illness among famous artists to stigmatize our cultural icons or their craft. Rather, we highlight their struggles to help peel away the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

A cursory glance at the long list of revered Americans with mental illness should dispel the false notion that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, or that it is a roadblock to greatness; it is not. That list includes not only jazz artists like Miles Davis, but also the likes of President Abraham Lincoln, too. As Miles Davis once sang, “It Could Happen to You.”

If you suspect you or someone you know may be struggling with mental illness, or if you are seeking treatment, resources are available at mentalhealth.gov or via the treatment referral hotline at 1‑877‑726‑4727. For emergency situations, the Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255).

Written by

Ashton is a native of Kokomo, Mississippi (yes, that's a real place; no, the Beach Boys never sang about it). While he was a journalism student at the University of Southern Mississippi, he made a name for himself as the creator and Editor-in-Chief of Deep South Daily, an online publication centered around progressive Southern politics that reached millions. At various points, he’s been a contributor to the New York Times, a freelance videographer and production assistant with Showtime, and a social media pot-stirrer. He has been retweeted by the likes of Hillary Clinton and J.K. Rowling. He is also proud to have been mocked and blocked by Roseanne Barr.

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