Updated: Dec 12, 2019
The range of afflictions that are considered evidence of mental illnesses is extensive, and a bit shocking. The term mental illness is typically used to describe the behavioral patterns of someone who has difficulty interacting within societal standards, or someone who does not experience the same reality as those around them. These difficulties range greatly, but I am going to focus on schizophrenia and depression in this series of three articles.
Schizophrenia is a generalist term for a mental illness, defined by the perception of visuals, sounds, and events, which do not seem to exist to others. People who experience schizophrenia may hear voices or witness situations that seem impossible and surreal to those around them. The possibility that the world you inhabit, is not the same as the one inhabited by those you know is a scary thought, and it can lead to a darker and darker reality. These hallucinations may be threatening and influential, leading people to believe they must follow their lead. There is not much known about what goes on in the minds of those whose perception doesn’t match the one most of us know. The root cause is not understood; however, evidence suggests that genetics, environment, brain chemistry, and substance use may contribute. Just like every person, the people who experience these altered realities respond to the stimulus of their environment, molding their world into a palatable form. So, to understand the mind of someone with a different perception, you must look not only to their brain, but to the world they inhabit.
The term melancholia was suggested as an alternative to depression in the early 1900s. Depression is at times used incorrectly as a synonym for discontentedness, or reactionary sadness. The affliction is more muddled than this though. Melancholia to me sounds deep and dark, so purple it’s almost black, like thick water, too viscous to swim, so all you can do is hope to wash to shore. This is closer to the nature of depression, akin to a heavy stifling blanket, which can linger for months or years, and often arriving without rhyme or reason. Reacting to life’s difficulties and losses with sadness is a natural human process, and not to be undermined, but depression is different, less definable, more elusive and mysterious.
In International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry, they describe depression as a “diminished experience of free will” (Fulford). The effect of depression is that one feels their environment rules their lives, not the opposite experience, had by most people. “Man’s freedom of will belongs to the immediate data of his experience” (Frankl), which implies that the world that a person absorbs, while depressed, is somehow different. It does not appear malleable or open to influence, but rather that it is one’s own master. More like navigating a hard, steely labyrinth than forging a path through the world. “World experience incorporates perception of possibility,” and the perception of one stricken with depression is dark, with no promise of light. A patient of Dr. Rowe once said,
“Depression steals away whoever you are, prevents you from seeing who you might someday be, and replaces your life with a black hole. Like a sweater eaten by moths, nothing is left of the original, only fragments that hinted at greater capacities” (Karp).
The imagery given by those who have experienced the disease is muffled and lonely, “like being in a dark prison cell, [or] the bottom of a deep hole, some say it is like being wrapped in impenetrable cloth, [or] being enclosed by thick, soundproofed glass. The images vary, but the underlying concept is the same. The person is in solitary confinement” (Fulford). People describe a nightmarish interpretation of reality where “ordinary objects- chairs, tables and the like—possess a frightening, menacing quality… [like] some kind of hell” (Fulford).
The shadowy nightmarish reality these descriptions conjure matches the color that melancholia phonically drips with. All seem to suggest that the affliction changes a person, reroutes them and takes the wheel, removing all possibility of steering one’s own life. Depression removes a person from the wavelength shared by those around and isolates them in a cold mental void. The world experienced by those suffering, seems to latch onto the affected, smelling their sickness and feeding the disease. A person’s brain begins to filter information in an entirely new way, interpreting the world in a lonely hopeless manner.
Frankl states that “only two classes of people maintain that their will is not free: schizophrenic patients… and… deterministic philosophers” (Frankl).
The feeling that your mind is not entirely your own, that influence on your life is out of your control can be terrifying, and when you’re labeled sick it’s even worse. This philosophical approach says that perhaps the world around us influences our thoughts more than typically assumed. Perhaps the ideas from which our actions originate are only being filtered by our brains, and stem from the world around us, not conjured up in our head, like pulling rabbits out of a hat. If so, then perhaps these people suffering are merely interpreting a reality that is not friendly to them, one that is not necessarily unreal.
Maybe this is why some of the brightest individuals in our species history all have remarked that they have felt the effect of this melancholia tinted existence.
Humanity has a checkered past, periods of time are often shunned and ignored by people out of general embarrassment, past and present. Slavery, world wars, genocides, nuclear weapons, and environmental catastrophe show a side of our species that is careless, hateful, and irresponsible. However, for every mistake we make there is a generation of art to reflect those mistakes. Creative expression both mirrors and molds society. Artists are shaped by the world they live in, and often articulate the world back to itself. For this reason, art can be some of our best insight into the mood of a society, a thermometer of sorts, that reflects how a generation feels about the state of the world.
At the same time, art can change the psyche of a population, convince people to revolutionize or think differently. The music of the sixties and seventies saw the hippy wave, a youth who refused to adhere to the laws and regulations put before them, and preferred a lifestyle characterized by love, peace, and coexistence. Their music both expressed their ideas and motivated them to fight. Many of this generation’s artists fell to drug overdose. The American nineties were encompassed by grunge rock music, aimed at outdated and immoral social tendencies, and rap music sick of a nation with racial divides and blatant organized suppression. This generation saw a high death toll from drug overdose and gun violence. The unrest in these eras of music inspired many, but also lead to the early death of many of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Again, and again, it is the minds of our most brilliant artists that seem to have the most trouble making peace with their reality. Many people write this association off as a result of drug use, personal struggles, and a life in the spotlight. This misfortune has spent time with all genres of creativity, a pool of minds such as Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali. Names that have stood the test of time, whose work continues to inspire thought, and reveal its own mysteries. Many bands and artists that have become household names have histories of depression, suicide, and overdose. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Chris Cornell of Sound Garden, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Bradley Nowels of Sublime, Mac Miller, Lil Peep, Capital Steez, and many others, all gone too early, victims of drug abuse and suicide.
Brian Jones, the original founder and front man of the Stones was an academic and an accomplished musician on many instruments. He played guitar, piano, wind instruments, drums, and various others. His disdain for regimentation and establishment lead him away from his academic pursuits and found him traveling, busking, working odd jobs and performing at blues and jazz clubs. The blues and jazz roots can be found in the Stone’s early music, weaving the guitars of Jones and Keith Richards, traditional arrangements with new twists. As the Rolling Stones popularity increased, he grew more disenfranchised. He began drinking, drugging, and became undependable for rehearsals and recording. The band asked him to leave, and a month later he was found dead in his pool.
Jim Morrison, also an accomplished poet, was not a musically trained vocalist. His eerie voice backed by the jazz and blues influence of the Doors, produced works which seemed to open a door in the fabric of reality, breaking on through to the other side. Through Jim’s eyes we saw a world dark and stormy, his own novel, yet ever changing. They released six albums in only four years. Their music carried a sense of curiosity and hopelessness with no desire to be understood. As their popularity increased the difficulty of his struggle seemed to as well, he began drinking heavily and was inconsistent in the recording studio. His death, the cause of which is unknown, came during a trip to Paris, an attempt to step out of the public eye and focus on poetry.
Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett, the initial lead guitarist and vocalist for Pink Floyd, experienced strong synesthesia, an affliction where the brain associates sound with colors and other visuals. Many artists experience varying degrees of this, and it can lend to creativity and inspired musical arrangement. He experimented with distortion, dissonance, and feedback in his guitar playing, and began a new wave that continues today. His synesthesia may have helped his artistry, but heavy psychedelic use pushed his artistically wired brain past the edge, further than he could handle in his waking mind. He suffered a mental breakdown and was unable to carry on with the band in peace. He left the spotlight and made a few attempts at solo records, bringing in members of Pink Floyd for help. Drummer Jerry Shirley described how Syd “would never play the same tune twice,” at times he “couldn't play anything that made sense, other times what he'd play was absolute magic” (Shirley, Jerry). His obscure perception of music was clear in his relationship with it, the way he spoke showed a visualization of sound shockingly real. While working on his second solo album, and fussing over a song he said to Roger Barrett, “perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit middle afternoonish, at the moment it's too windy and icy” (Barrett, Roger). The chilling clarity of the mural his mind experienced, offers a glimpse into the world of a man who seems to have been crafted for his art. However, the reality he experienced became too obscure for the mind that beheld it.
Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist for Nirvana was a pioneer of the Seattle grunge movement, many would call him the king. Cobain’s voice holds the weight of a culture’s injustices, while keeping a spark of hope alive that things may change. Backed by a drum line from David Grohl and Krist Novoselic’s low muddled bass lines, their beautifully twisted songs illuminated social ignorance, while eluding clarity, keeping the audience on their toes in a constantly morphing mirror image. Kurt was incredibly intelligent, funny, charismatic, and warm, but also suffered from battles with demons only he could see. A rough upbringing and time spent homeless, honed his ability to see reality all too clearly, and the darkness of the world, with no filter. He attempted to convey these injustices through his music and allow the audience to look at themselves with honesty. However, his acute sense of wrong in the world contributed to heavy depression, leading to drug use, and dug a hole he could not climb out of. He chose to take his own life following media slander about his relationship and a stint in rehab.
Capital Steez grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, one of the original founders of the Pro Era rap group. Steez, was a lyrical mastermind, melding ideas from ancient histories, metaphysics, and societal corruption into a seamless stream of punctuated lines. Born Courtney Everald Dewar Jr., he was a true pioneer of modern hip hop, helping form the wave of psychedelic beat selection, and honest, potent, enlightened lyricism. The same way that rock music transitioned in its fabric and message, so did rap, and Steez helped pave that path. To say that Steez’s music was anti-establishment would be an injustice, his quarrel was not as much with the everyday errors of the world, but with the greater human consciousness that we have adopted. His lyrics seem to come from a higher rung of existence, prophetically observing the world from a tall vantage point, not distracted by the noise and bright lights on the ground, actively battling the encroaching darkness he saw coming. He took his own life in 2012 after experiencing a prolonged altered sense of reality, in and out of what was before him. In an interview with Steez’s friend and collaborator, Joey Bada$$, he said he believes that Steez “thought he was dreaming,” caught in his waking mind somewhere between the spirit world and the physical plane (Joey).
And as I’m writing this, I learned Juice WRLD passed away this morning in a Chicago airport. This is horrendous, he was twenty-one years old. Naming himself in tribute to the legend of Tupac Shakur, he had a bright future ahead of him, and it has been snuffed.
Art gives credibility to the human soul, it evokes a reaction reserved for the moments that stick in your heart, yet you cannot explain. Art represents a mental revolution, when our ancestors chose to create, rather than just survive, it ignited the spark of light that became our consciousness. Our civilization’s artists are plagued by mental illness and depression and we are confronted with no clear identity of the culprit. Those of our species, who are the most human, those who experience the world’s flaws unbiased and unjaded, often do not live long enough to see the social change their work may bring. The problem is not in the mind of the artist, but rather in our understanding of the psyche, reality, and the role of the creative. It is on us as a society to learn a new understanding of the place of the artist, not a conduit for radio pop songs, but a door to the cumulative soul of our species, a gatekeeper to our own conscience, and a spiritual leader to help guide us through our human wanderings.
In Patti Smith’s Just Kids, she recounts a story visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. While walking through the cemetery, an old French woman began to scold her. After fumbling with her English, she repeated several times, “American why do you not take care of your poets?” (Smith)
Hughes, Julian C. International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry: Thinking Through Dementia. OUP Oxford, 2011.
“Joey Bada$$ On Suicide & His Spiritual Journey | The Therapist.” Noisey, 17 Nov. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1WQEuDSXno.
Smith, Patti. Just Kids. Bloomsbury, 2019.