10 Brilliant Musicians Who’ve Battled Mental Illness

Music Lists

Mental illness and creative brilliance often go hand and hand, particularly when it come so music. Mental health is definitely not an issue to be taken lightly, and mental illness has unfortunately claimed the lives of several individuals who had so much more to offer the world.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So we decided to honor a few of those musicians who have battled with mental illness against all odds, while giving us wonderful music.

1. Brian Wilson – The Beach Boys
Condition: Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type
By 1968, Brian Wilson began having a diminished creative role in The Beach Boys. Until then, he had been the groups principal songwriter, but he began spending the majority of his time in bed, sleeping, doing drugs and overeating. Eventually he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type which supposedly caused him to hear voices in his head. But after various medication treatments and therapies, Wilson finally found a regimen that has allowed for him to continue recording and performing. He even managed to finish Smile, the legendary unfinished Beach Boys project that fell apart at the beginning of Wilson’s mental health problems.

2. Daniel Johnston
Condition: Bipolar Disorder
If you’ve seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston, you know the story. At a young age, Johnston decided he was going to be an artist. His ambitious nature of recording homemade tapes to give to people he met gained him some notoriety when he was living in Austin, Texas, augmented by Kurt Cobain’s habit of frequently wearing a t-shirt featuring Johnston’s Hi, How Are You? album cover. Johnston’s battle with severe manic depression produced many wonderful songs, but sent him in and out of mental institutions for a large part of his life as well. He currently lives with his parents in Waller, Texas, and continues to write and record music.

3. Syd Barrett – Pink Floyd
Condition: Speculated Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder
Syd Barrett was never officially diagnosed with any form of mental illness, but many music historians have speculated that he might have suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. A founding member of Pink Floyd, he left the band in 1968 after his behavior became increasingly erratic. Barrett was also a heavy drug user, a habit that many suspect contributed to his declining mental health. “In my opinion, [his breakdown] would have happened anyway,” said David Gilmour, who stepped in as Pink Floyd’s guitarist after Barrett’s departure. “It was a deep-rooted thing. But I’ll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don’t think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it.”

Barrett’s problems had a profound impact on Floyd bassist Roger Waters’ songwriting. Themes of mental illness began to become frequent in the band’s later releases, particularly Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, the latter of which was a tribute to their departed friend. After Barrett left the band, he recorded two solo albums before retreating in to seclusion where he spent the rest of his life focusing on gardening and painting. He died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer.

4. Roky Erickson – 13th Floor Elevators
Condition: Paranoid Schizophrenia
As pioneers of the psychedelic rock movement, Roky Erickson and the rest of the 13th Floor Elevators often drew unwanted attention from the authorities for their open advocacy of drug use. Then in 1969, Erickson was arrested for possession of marijuana when he was found with a single joint, an event that would change his life. To avoid jail time, Erickson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane where the singer was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He subsequently received heavy medication and electroshock therapy for the next several years.

Since his release in 1972, he has undergone several musical comeback phases in between his bouts with mental illness. He believed that his body was inhabited by aliens and was arrested in 1990 for stealing his neighbor’s junk mail and pinning it to his walls. Most recently, Erikson collaborated with fellow Texans Okkervil River on his album True Love Cast Out All Evil.

5. Kurt Cobain – Nirvana
Condition: Bipolar Disorder
It’s unclear whether or not Kurt Cobain was ever officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His cousin, Bev Cobain, a registered nurse with a background working in mental health, has claimed he suffered from the illness. “Kurt was diagnosed at a young age with Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD], then later with bipolar disorder [also known as manic-depression],” she said in an interview. “Bipolar illness has the same characteristics as major clinical depression, but with mood swings, which present as rage, euphoria, high energy, irritability, distractibility, overconfidence, and other symptoms. As Kurt undoubtedly knew, bipolar illness can be very difficult to manage, and the correct diagnosis is crucial. Unfortunately for Kurt, compliance with the appropriate treatment is also a critical factor.”

Cobain’s depression was often made apparent in his lyrics, as well as interviews and his personal writing. The combination of Cobain’s mental health problems as well as his drug use caught up with him in 1994 when he took his own life. Bev Cobain has since become an activist for suicide prevention.

6. Ray Davies – The Kinks
Condition: Bipolar Disorder
A lot of things are well known about The Kinks, particularly that they wrote brilliant songs and that brothers Ray Davies and Dave Davies don’t get along very well. However, it’s not quite as well known that Ray Davies suffers from bipolar disorder.

He has also attempted suicide at least once. “I’d just come offstage and sunk a bottle of downers because I wanted to kill myself,” he said in an interview. “Then I changed my mind. I was dressed as a dandy, it might have looked like a clown to everyone else. But even clowns can have bad days.”

7. Sinéad O’Connor
Condition: Bipolar Disorder
Sinéad O’Connor rose to fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, due in part to her hit single “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But fame isn’t everything. O’Connor was plagued with thoughts of suicide, and after several therapists and hospital visits. She was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In a 2007 interview, she described her illness as a gaping hole in the center of her being. But she was finally prescribed the right medication. “Within half an hour it was like cement going over the hole,” she said.

8. Poly Styrene – X-Ray Spex
Condition: Bipolar Disorder
Marianne Joan Elliot-Said pioneered the punk movement with her band X-Ray Spex under the stage name Poly Styrene, but her personal health was wracked with tragedy. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991, and shortly after, she was hit by a fire truck, fracturing her pelvis among other injuries. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.

“It has been a struggle with the bipolar disorder but that’s just life,” she said in an interview last month. “I have managed to be creative, make a new album and thank God this cancer did not strike before then. It’s been a difficult journey with the cancer but I take each day as it comes.”

Sadly, Elliot-Said passed away on April 25, 2011 as a result of her cancer.

9. Nick Drake
Condition: Depression
Nick Drake was a brilliant songwriter who wasn’t sufficiently appreciated until he passed away. He suffered from depression and insomnia for much of his life, but he became a casualty of his illness in 1974 when he overdosed on his antidepressants. He was only 26.

10. Ian Curtis – Joy Division
Condition: Depression
Post-punk pioneer Ian Curtis co-founded Joy Division in 1976. As the band steadily gained notoriety, Curtis sank deeper and deeper into depression. His dissolving marriage and diagnosis of epilepsy only augmented his problems.

As the band prepared for their first North American tour, Curtis committed suicide. He died far too young, but left behind a legacy that is still remembered today.

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