The Tortured Artist: Music and Mental Illness

Posted on November 11, 2012


By guest blogger Sarah Howard

Early in the musical Next to Normal, Natalie, the daughter of Diana, a woman suffering from bipolar disorder, sings: “Mozart was crazy. Flat fucking crazy.” Though it may seem at first that mental illness is a strange subject for a musical, throughout history creative professionals, particularly musicians, have long been linked to the theme of the “tortured artist”.

A recent BBC article featured a study by Swedish researchers from the Karolinska Institute showing the relationship between creativity and mental illness. They found that certain types of creative careers, such as writing, dancing, and photography, were more at risk for a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Whether certain traits associated with mental illness have benefits for people in their creative lives or people suffering from them are more drawn to these careers has yet to be determined.

Mozart may well have been one of these tortured artists. An article on references a 2005 Psychiatry article by Phillippe Huguelet and Nader Perroud, who investigated whether Mozart fit into any current definitions of mental illness. Based on reviewing correspondence, biographies, and previous research into his life, they concluded that Mozart suffered from depression in the last year of his life, as well as noting traits of Dependent and Borderline Personality Disorders he exhibited.

More recently, many popular musicians have publicly suffered from mental illness. For instance, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys had a well-known struggle with mental illness, including depression and schizoaffective disorder (which he discusses in this interview with Ability Magazine. Many recent cases of musicians committing suicide have had mental illness as a contributing factor, such as Kurt Cobain, who had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder (according to his cousin, a registered nurse). Elliott Smith was known to suffer from depression, although it is unclear if it played a role in the untimely end of his life in 2003.

There is clearly something to the theory of the “tortured artist,” as these people lived life in the public eye so they’re the face for mental illness people often see. But while it may be true that certain aspects of mental illness can be a breeding ground for creativity, it’s also important to take a balanced approach to treatment so some of the terrible consequences of untreated illness are not realized. As we see in Next to Normal, failure to treat mental illness can result in dire consequences.

Sarah Howard is currently a student in the Creative Writing MFA program at Hamline University. She has also written for Thirty Two magazine, and Twin Cities Runoff.
To see more of her work, visit
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