Depression is a reality. Many of us or people we know have experienced depression in some form.
For people working in the arts, art itself can be a large part of healing and working through difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, work-related depression (i.e. stresses caused not necessarily by the product of artistic output) is often more prevalent in creative people. According to Health.com, 9% of surveyed musicians/actors/writers reported a MAJOR event of depression in the last year.
Below you will find a short sampling of research I collected on this topic. This article simply presents factual evidence that some psychologists believe to be reasons for higher rates of depressive events in the performing arts.
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Are Musicians More Likely to Suffer from Depression?
Music is largely intangible, encompassed by an entire industry that serves the presentation of sounds that exist somewhere in space. Whether in live settings or publicized recorded media, performing artists have always been under pressure to draw widespread attention out of the need to build a livelihood. Legendary composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, for example, wrote some of their most critically acclaimed literature during strong bouts of depression related symptoms. Not limited to the music industry, more recent creative people have faced similar mental struggle, perhaps most recently demonstrated by comedian and actor Robin Williams.
In a recent publication by Health.com, the job category “Artists, Entertainers, and Writers” ranked fifth in a listing of careers with high rates of depression, with 9% of creative people reporting an episode of major depression in the past year (“10 Careers with High Rates of Depression,” n.d.). While this statistical evidence is compelling when examining the individuals already working in the industry, it does not take into account whether the symptoms of depression existed prior to entering or whether lifestyle decisions play a role in the causation.
In psychologist Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code,” Coyle discusses the “ignition” that triggers someone to work at a skill and become great; young baseball players of Curaçao were inspired when Andruw Jones rose out of extreme poverty to the major leagues (2009, pp. 122-125). Today, an unusually large sampling of major league players are coming out of Curaçao– a trend that was nonexistent before Jones. This ignition of talent is even more common for musicians. Mozart experienced the sounds of his father’s music beginning in early childhood, much like jazz musician and United Nations Ambassador of World Peace Wynton Marsalis grew up in the jazz hotbed of New Orleans. In short, musicians are often inspired by the arts before deciding to explore them. The idea that existing depression forces someone to pick up an instrument for the very first time lacks historical supporting evidence.
Musicians often compose and play music about their own lives, either directly or indirectly. When the public or critics accept or reject this art, the musician may feel judged themselves. A musician whose work is heavily criticized or ignored may subconsciously feel misunderstood or alienated from society. Likewise, an artist may create something that they know will be popular and thus offer a sustainable livelihood. In doing this, artists lose who they really want to be as they repress true artistic inspiration in hopes of pleasing others.
Furthermore, depression may be extended by “rumination” on one’s thoughts (“The Link between Depression and Creativity,” 2013). Musicians are forced to express a myriad of emotions in a performance, and maintaining a lucid mind while expressing these emotions can be difficult. A work depicting death, such as John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls performed by the New York Philharmonic one year after the 9/11 attacks, may affect a performer much like a doctor may be affected by a dying patient.
The Guardian’s Helienne Lindvall notes that there seems to be a trend of people with depressive illness entering the arts, perhaps rather than the arts causing depression after entry (Lindvall, n.d.). For some, it is the acceptance of millions that drives their career, as with countless international pop icons. With “a craving for acceptance and love from their audience,” many of these performers go home to an empty house, where loneliness and depression may have driven them to first take the stage (Lindvall).
Lifestyle decisions also play an important role in symptoms of depression as a musician. Lindvall argues that some encounter depression as artists directly due to these decisions, i.e. drug and alcohol use, overbearing tour schedules, and numbing empty praise from fans that never cease. Additionally, the opportunity for dangerous lifestyle habits are often more frequent in the large-scale entertainment industry. It is commonly known that Ray Charles readily received access to heroin because of his quick-rise in status as an international music figure. Overall, these lifestyle decisions that potentially lead to depression cannot be directly attributed to being a musician, as such evidence does not imply that musicians specifically are more likely to experience this.
Music as Medicine
Music is communication. With freedom to speak, opinions and personal experiences can be shared, sometimes without limits. Despite the widespread cases of depression in the world of music, it must be emphasized that many look to the arts to relieve the hurt of difficult circumstances. If musicians are indeed more depressed than non-musicians, perhaps it may be attributed to causes that have nothing to do with being an artist. Also, according to the CDC, 1 in 10 Americans claim to have experienced some type of depression– a statistic that closely aligns with the 9% of creative people reporting event(s) of depression (“The Link between Depression and Creativity,” 2013). As shown in music therapy, mysterious healing power exists in the intangibility of sound. Statistics only offer a snapshot in time and the tendencies discussed above should not limit one’s willingness to discover the power of the arts. -JTB
Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born: It’s grown, here’s how. New York: Bantam Books.
Lindvall, H. (n.d.). Behind the music: Why are musicians more likely to suffer from depression? [Web log post]. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from
The link between depression and creativity [Web log post]. (2013, July 15). Retrieved October 7, 2014, from http://creativesomething.net/post/55508909341/the-link-between-depression-and-creativity-and-how-it
10 careers with high rates of depression [Web log post]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20428990_6,00.html