By Amanda Cardini, Editor-in-Chief
Early deaths among prominent musicians are nothing new; the very foundation of the music scene is peppered with drug use, overdoses and suicides. In recent years, mental health has come to be a much less taboo topic, one more acceptable for open discussion. With a heightened public awareness of mental illness, it seems logical to explore whether there is something psychological underlying musician deaths.
The idea that fame isn’t everything is a well-known concept, as evidenced by the old adage “money can’t buy happiness.” We know that world recognition has its countless downsides, even though many still seek it. But some of the burdens of fame were not openly discussed until the recent start of the de-stigmatization of mental illness. The pressures of constant touring, the feeling of being under a microscope that the entire world has its eye pressed up to, and the strain of maintaining success all come with the territory of being famous, and yet they take their toll – sometimes in a definite, final way.
One celebrity death that rocked the world in recent years is that of Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park. Bennington’s life was riddled with tragedy, as he battled drug and alcohol addiction, and was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. He also had a history of depression and anxiety, and many of his close friends remarked that he exhibited signs of “hopelessness and isolation” before his suicide.
Swedish DJ Avicii (born Tim Bergling) also ended his life just last year after a long, sad history of mental health issues. After many years of growing anxiety, Avicii succumbed to the pressures of performing in 2016 when he retired from performing live. He spoke out about the toxicity of the party lifestyle that accompanies life as a DJ, and was even quoted as saying that continuing to perform “will kill me” in the documentary Avicii: True Stories. Avicii suffered from substance abuse with both painkillers and drinking, which eventually lead to a diagnosis of pancreatitis. In the statement released by his family following his death, it was noted that he had long struggled with complex thoughts about meaning and life.
Chester Bennington and Avicii’s deaths both tell a somber cautionary tale: the pressures of fame are real, and they are taxing. The lifestyle required for near constant touring certainly does not promote mental wellness; it hardly leaves any time to address underlying psychological issues, and the nonstop change in location makes it hard to maintain any sense of normalcy or routine. Artist and tour managers are partially to blame – there has been controversy surrounding Avicii’s death on whether the people working for him were only interested in lining their own pockets rather than his mental health.
And why wouldn’t these industry moguls only have eyes for dollar signs? Tour and artist managers have the ability to make large profits with minimal effort; a single, two hour performance for Avicii in 2014 could bring in upwards of $150,000. But there is something inherently wrong in the fact that artists are expected to shelve their own needs in exchange for the enjoyment of their fans, and ultimately the paycheck.
Yet another artist with openly discussed mental health issues is Amy Winehouse, who passed away in 2011 from alcohol toxicity. Amy indulged in many drugs throughout her life, including crack, narcotics, and heroin, but she did have bouts of sobriety. However, she also suffered from an eating disorder shortly before her death.
The link between mental illness and substance abuse is well documented, but the world of the famous seems to only heighten it. Combine the stress of performing and touring with a lifestyle that promotes partying and substance abuse and you have a recipe for disaster. Constant touring often leads to many late nights, which causes artists to turn to substances, not to mention the countless after-parties and events that accompany the scene. And when so many musicians are abusing drugs and alcohol, it’s hard to abstain; a precedent is set that if others are doing it, it must be possible to use and still be successful. Drug use has been promoted in music for along time, and continues today: from the Beatles’ songs about their recreational use of LSD, to rap and hip-hop promoting everything from marijuana to prescription painkillers. And it’s not just these genres – many popular country lyrics involve drinking, and pop music often mentions the glamor of partying too.
In 2018 popular hip-hop artist Mac Miller accidentally overdosed. Mac’s use of substances was never a secret; he sang of both his struggles with drugs and his attempts at sobriety on almost all of his albums. He also never shied away from lyrically expressing his depression. Perhaps the most upsetting detail of Mac’s OD however, is the fact that it was unintentional; while Chester and Avicii chose their fates, and Amy Winehouse’s death was “inevitable” to those around her, Mac was in a good place when he passed. He had just released his fifth studio album, Swimming, and was gearing up for a tour. Those close to him said he was incredibly excited for the tour, and his last tweets provide testament to that perception. Yet he continued to use, putting his life at risk.
Mac Miller’s autopsy revealed that the substance fentanyl was found in his system. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid (80-100 times more powerful than morphine) that can be fatal at incredibly small doses. The drug has recently been found laced in many types of drugs, giving doses that would typically not be lethal the potential to cause an overdose. The drug also contributed to Prince and Tom Petty’s deaths, both of whom also died of accidental overdoses.
The danger of opioids, and especially fentanyl, is another issue. But it seems undeniable that something about fame leads to mental illness and substance abuse. Whether musicians are turning to substances as a coping mechanism to deal with their mental stress, or if it’s the other way around and substances are causing a deterioration in mental health, is uncertain. Regardless, the two are inextricably linked among the rich and famous.
The de-stigmatization of mental illness is long overdue. While it has slowly begun, we still have a long way to go before methods of treatment are normalized. Those immediately surrounding artists and musicians can do more to recognize signs that they are struggling, and put their mental health as a priority above maximizing profits. As a society we can do more to empathize with those who are struggling with issues like anxiety, depression and drug addiction. The perfect storm of fame, performing, mental illness and substance abuse is one that many musicians weather, some with more drastic consequences than others.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800-273-TALK (8255) or through chat available 24/7.