Creativity and Suicide
Creative people committing suicide isn’t anything new, but surely in this day of understanding of mental health we could be, and should be doing better? Sadly, in an age where mental health is becoming more of a focus, social media and celebrity culture are causing as many problems as those being fixed.
“I remember sitting there, at Knebworth, in the backstage area, and someone saying, ‘Well, what now?’ And I was like, ‘I couldn’t ******* tell ya.’ And that was how I felt for a good couple of years afterwards, I really suffered. It’s like, what do you do when you’ve done everything. I suppose it’s like getting a massive, massive pay rise and buying everything you want. What do you do after that? You kind of sink into boredom. Kind of directionless.”
When thinking about the life of a band, and this could be a band starting up going on national tours of clubs or someone the size of U2, there are pressures that most people don’t live with and don’t understand. When your livelihood is based on creating something from nothing it is different to having a final product to sell that people can touch and own. Life can change at any moment, one minute you’re selling tickets to record crowds at Knebworth, and then it’s done. What now? How do you top it? What can you offer to get even bigger, to stay relevant, and keep your identity?
I am not suggesting that pressure and stress are unique to people who are creative, there are other groups of people with equally (or higher) risks of suicide, such as people on low-income or people who are unemployed, and many other demographics (Gunnell, n.d.). I am suggesting that people who are creative and need that creativity for their career have unique pressures that put them under a different kind of stress and risk. There is a difference in the pressure to be at work for a certain schedule and perform certain specific tasks than there is to fly to experience a new city every day or two, perform, eat, sleep, travel, create new material, promote the new material, and somehow keep sanity. All of this in an ecosystem in which you are stuck with the same people who are equally struggling with the same pressures and stresses of having to create while missing friends, family and any form of stability.
But there is another level to this. How does an actor or musician manage the expectations of their fans? How do they manage the expectations to perform and be everything they are expected to be while their own lives may be falling apart? How can they offer support and positivity when everything within them is hurting? How can someone keep offering more to their adoring public when they are running on empty? What happens when they work their soul into a new album and it is met with public disapproval? And of course, anyone in the public eye will have haters to deal with.
As far as research goes, I am much more interested in qualitative data than quantitative. I am interested in statistics only as far as “the majority” or “the difference between”. Anything more and my head spins. Here is an example of why – The majority of people who commit suicide do so because they feel the world would be better off without them. In fact, suicide letters in a study (Kashan, 2014) revealed that this was the difference between people who completed suicide and those who attempted suicide. People who succeeded felt they had nothing to offer the world. We can do better.
It’s a vicious circle really. A creative person feels stifled in a regular job so decides to make a life in which they are able to satisfy their creative outlets. They feel great, they are able to get all of the stuff that is on the inside out. They gain some fans. The fans love it, it “speaks to them”, and so the demand to continue that path grows. The person moves on, but the fans adoration means they have to produce more of the same. There are pressures and demands the person can’t live up to, they can’t continue to create because creativity is now being directed by external factors (fans, producers, managers), and the stuff on the inside can’t come out anymore.
Is it any wonder that the people who start as a creative free spirit become tortured geniuses? In a world of social media with every word and deed recorded for eternity, it doesn’t matter that in 15 minutes the wind will blow it over as a new thing comes along (you can see this in the Twitter account of Walter Palmer, killer of Cecil the Lion).
From my own experience, this #UnitedAirlines fiasco will last a few months max and then people will move on.
— Walter Palmer (@DentistPalmer) April 12, 2017
If the guy who became an international icon of evil can move on from killing a beloved creature and gaining worldwide hate, a wrong word from a rock star will soon be forgiven and forgotten.
But this is where we have to look at the qualitative approach and consider the lived experience. What we, the adoring public see is creativity, energy and entertainment. The crowds love you, you are constantly told that your music heals people or speaks to them, and the burden to keep talking to your adoring public and providing the healing they are asking for is immense. When you are broken on the inside how can you be expected to keep giving, keep sharing, and keep being there? How can you keep this up without dying on the inside?
We all know someone creative. You may not be besties with a rock star, but I am sure you know someone who has written books, or they paint, or they are a photographer. If they are trying to make a life from this and follow their dreams, be their friend. Encourage them – read their book, say nice things about their work, encourage them to be creative. There will be plenty of people demanding something from them, be the person who gives a little back and let them know they are not isolated and the world is better because they are here.
Gunnell, D. (n.d.). Article:Suicide by occupation, England: 2011 to 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/suicidebyoccupation/england2011to2015
Kashdan, T. B. (2014, May 15). Why Do People Kill Themselves? New Warning Signs. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201405/why-do-people-kill-themselves-new-warning-signs