Facing the truth about mental health and music

An excerpt from Lucy Nichol's book 'A Series Of Unfortunate Stereotypes: Naming And Shaming Mental Health Stigmas'

I’ve watched countless documentaries about Kurt Cobain. The one that I felt came across as most authentic was the one produced by Frances Bean Cobain – Kurt and Courtney’s daughter. It’s called ‘Montage of Heck’. It showed both parents in both good and bad lights. Because with addiction – with mental illness – there can’t only be good moments, can there? It felt real. Although even that film has been deemed as bullshit by some.

The point is, we have no idea who these people really are or were. We only see what the media lets us see. And there seems to be a pattern of blaming the less famous partner for limiting our catalogue of quality punk rock. So we blame somebody who we don’t know and have never met before because it suits our celebrity “Big Brother” society. We watch their lives through the media and translate them as we see fit for our own entertainment. Somebody else’s tragic life becomes a titbit to feed our fun and fascination.

Drugs. Conspiracy theories. Murder cases. These were the headlines associated with the stars. The words mental illness, schizophrenia, depression – they were used less often. These words sat behind the headlines. They didn’t give us enough glamour or controversy. So we never associated our heroes with mental illness. We never gave their bent towards drug taking a second thought. They were rock ‘n’ roll. I had never even heard of the idea of self-medication through booze and drugs back then. I had no idea they might be desperately searching for some happiness or trying to numb a pain.

Meanwhile, Joe Bloggs with depression was the weirdo next door and Jane Bloggs with schizophrenia was the nutter down the road. And they killed bunnies!

Headlines say one thing, but real stories say something else. More recently, Amy Winehouse’s ill health was played out to the public. And we lapped it up! I still feel guilty for roaring with laughter at the episode of comedy panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks when she appeared blatantly drunk. It was entertaining.

Amy Winehouse performing live

But ignorance is bliss. She was doing what a lot of stars do – drinking. That’s just what they do. That’s all we know of them. As if someone famous wakes up in turmoil every day! Of course not! They’ve got the life, after all!

Who knew it was mental illness with Amy Winehouse? I didn’t get it. We always wanted to see what mess she’d got herself into. It’s tragic. She suffered horribly and, according to the documentary Amy, the only reason much of that stuff played out publicly was because certain people in her life refused to let her recover in private. Her gigs, her profile – they were all too important.

There is certainly a lack of headlines that tackle the root cause of the problem in terms of celebrity mental ill health. Those headlines are more often reserved for unknowns who murder innocent people, or others who we only know as dangerous “mentalists”. And all the people we place on pedestals? Well, in the past, we would rather have created a conspiracy theory, drama, or punk rock lifestyle around them. We didn’t want to know that mental illness had anything to do with it.
Our idols were not mentally ill. They were living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle! Because that’s what sells newspapers, right?

Wrong. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll. And I don’t like it.

Words by Lucy Nichol

Lucy Nichol’s book ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes – naming and shaming mental health stigmas’ is out now

Lucy’s book ‘A series of unfortunate stereotypes – naming and shaming mental health stigmas’ is available to order from Amazon and Waterstones now.