In a previous blog post, I alluded to a study from Help Musicians UK which indicated musicians and those working in the music industry could be more than three times as likely to suffer from depression as the rest of the population. The report, titled “Can Music Make You Sick?”, is based on a survey of 2,211 people by the U.K.’s University of Westminster and its music think tank, MusicTank. I first learned of the study through a daily email digest I receive from Guitar World magazine.

From what I can gather from the study, it appears the main cause of depression among those surveyed stemmed from the general working conditions involved with being a musician or a music executive. One of the survey’s respondents summed it up this way: “My depression is made worse by trying to exist as a musician… Rarely has playing music been detrimental to my health, quite the opposite … but the industry and socio-economic pressures … make this a f*****g s*** industry to try and make a living in.” In addition to those reporting depression, 71 percent of those surveyed added that they’ve experienced panic attacks or high levels of anxiety. To put that percentage into perspective, approximately 19 percent of the general population of the U.K. reports experiencing anxiety or depression.

One respondent of the survey mentioned that performing music for a living was sometimes not perceived as doing “real work,” a sentiment I would guess spans across all professions involved with the arts. I know that despite the fact that hundreds of people have read things I’ve written over the years, I still often feel that I’m not really working when I’m writing, even if I’m being paid to do so. That feeling only multiplies when I’m not being paid, such as when I’m writing for this blog. Although I don’t consider myself an artist in the same way a professional musician is, I can sympathize with those who feel as if what they’re doing does not contain much “real world” worth.

I believe there is something deeper at work, though, in the mind of an artist who is experiencing depression. I was reminded of this belief recently with the apparent hanging death of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell’s suicide before that. I believe those who are artistically-inclined experience emotions at a deeper level than those who are not so inclined. Art – whether it be in the form of sculpting, painting, playing a musical instrument, singing, or writing – is basically the expression of emotion in the physical realm, and those who work in an artistic medium are accessing their emotions on a very regular basis. This does not mean every artist/writer/musician is depressed, but a large number of them have been, and being able to access their sorrow has produced some of the greatest artistic works the world has ever known.

All this is not to say that non-artistic people feel depression and/or anxiety at a lesser intensity. Mental illness certainly does not discriminate, and to claim one particular group of people experience it at a greater intensity would simply be untrue. However, there does seem to be some type of inclination toward depression and anxiety present in the artistically-minded that is not present in the rest of the population. Of course, that does not mean everyone who takes up the pen or paintbrush or guitar will be depressed. Art and music and writing can be joyous and celebratory as well. For some reason, though, we seem to remember the tortured souls like Kurt Cobain and Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Allen Poe so much more vividly. Their greatest strength – the ability to relate emotions to their audiences – would also be their greatest weakness.

Since I struggle with depression, do I feel more deeply than you do? More deeply, no, but differently? Possibly. There is definitely something contained in my processing of emotions that operates differently from a person who has never known depression. I hope to harness whatever is different about me and use it to my advantage, as so many others have done. I am exceedingly sad when I hear stories like those of Cornell and Bennington, though, because I feel as if I know the edge they slipped over. The weight of emotion eventually became too much for them to handle.

I hope the majority of those who choose the creative arts as a profession will never feel the true depths of depression or the dizzying intensity of anxiety. If studies like this are to be believed, however, there is a high likelihood they will. I pray they are able to find beauty in their ashes and not fall into the abyss.

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