Why is “healthy artist” so oxymoronic?

“What do you want from me?  Why don’t you run from me? […] I want to end me.” These are just a few lines from the new song written by Billie Eilish called “Bury a Friend.” Eilish is only 18 years old but appears to already know one of the ways in which to make it big in any artistic industry. Embody the suffering artist, embrace the “darkness of your soul,” so to speak, and make it into genius. For a very long time, we have been sold the suffering artist story, from the rock stars who sing about abusing drugs, to the depressed comedian who makes the world laugh because they don’t, to the alcoholic artists who don’t “paint as well” in recovery. Suffering is not just something that artists sometimes voice through art —it becomes the artist and the art. Depression, addiction and addled brains, in general, are seen as a requirement to be an artist.

If this was an innate consequence of artists talking about their struggles that would be all well and good, but it’s not innate. It causes us to not address the problems with mental health in our society. When Robin Williams died, there was a lot of talk about how sad it was to have lost someone so amazing, how awful that he suffered so badly and took his own life. But few people pointed to the fact that we overwork ourselves and especially celebrities, that we don’t have comprehensive and well-equipped mental hospitals or that there are other people committing suicide who needed help they never got. It was a case of suffering artist syndrome. Instead of using it to spur ourselves to look inward at the structure of our society and its penalization of mental illness, we dismiss it as another lonely creator who is destined to meet an early grave.

I do not at all mean to say that all suicides are entirely preventable or that no artist suffers. But what I am saying is that people deal with their discomfort around artists’ openness about mental illness by dismissing it as simply something required of creative people. Not every artist is depressed or uses copious amounts of drugs, just how not every drug user and every depressed person creates art. We shouldn’t write off their illnesses as necessary artistic quirks. We should talk about how people who need help might not get it and how we can change that. Though this may have actually at one point sparked discussions, very few people actually seem to want to talk about these things at this point in time. Not every artist needs an intervention and a talking-to about their lyrics, and talking about mental health through such a medium can make people feel less alone. But at the end of the day, we should also be aware that artists should have to suffer for their art. And as a society, there are definitely things that need to be changed if an 18 year old pop star has demons she wants to discuss through a music video.

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