With the release of Amy coming to theaters across the U.S. last week, the heartbreaking death of Amy Winehouse was once again trotted out for public consumption. While the film has already received some rave reviews, it has also been hit with backlash from Amy’s family—they claim that the documentary is misleading and unfair.
Whether Amy properly represents Amy Winehouse’s personal life or not, the fact remains that throughout her career and after her death, her story was told according to the music industry’s narrative: an artist with a promising career spins out of control due to their own shortcomings, and thanks to substance abuse, loses their life. What’s often ignored, however, is the role that mental health disorders have on these artists’ lives.
In the entertainment industry, there is a pervasive misrepresentation of artists with mental health issues. Rather than examining an artist’s psychology, the industry romanticizes death and often frames the rockstar lifestyle as the culprit. When Amy passed in 2011, the press inducted her into the infamous 27 Club, a list of musicians that died at the age of 27—often as a result of drug or alcohol abuse.
Rather than examining an artist’s psychology, the industry romanticizes death and often frames the rockstar lifestyle as the culprit.
The more important commonality—rather than the age of death—was the battle against mental illness fought by live-fast-die-young artists like Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. Instead of publishing articles that discussed Amy’s battle with depression, paparazzi stalked her in order to fuel the drug-addled narrative.
Given the economic state of today’s music industry, it’s imperative for an artist to tour in order to make a living. With touring comes sleep deprivation, poor diet, lack of exercise, constant change, and isolation from loved ones—all of which are factors that lead to anxiety and depression—and occasionally, drug abuse. Those that have not dealt with depression or other mood disorders may argue that laying off the alcohol and drugs while on tour would help alleviate stress, which is true. But the correlation between mental health disorders and substance abuse is so strong that doctors have coined a term for it: dual diagnosis. According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America):
“About 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder, such as depression, also have a substance abuse disorder, and about 20 percent of those with a substance abuse problem also have an anxiety or mood disorder.”
What’s even more alarming is that almost 60% of professional musicians have suffered from depression or other psychological disorders, according to a survey from Help Musicians UK. Help Musicians UK is a charity that was formed to create a support system for artists, aiding them in everything from substance abuse to psychological disorders. Despite organizations like Help Musicians UK’s effort, however, the British Phonographic Industry does not provide these institutions monetary support.
The problem was addressed in a recent article by Noisey: “If the music industry makes money from artists, should they have an obligation to also help those musicians when they’re in need of support?” In a perfect world, yes. But it’s unlikely that the initiative will come from the major record labels or brands that finance artists. Real change will have to come from artists themselves, and anybody who suffers from mental health disorders.
One in five adults in the U.S. will experience mental health illness in a given year, according to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)—and I’m one of them.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and during a span of time, I suffered from crippling depression that caused me to lose nearly 20 pounds in only a couple of months. At the time, I was in the middle of college and it didn’t make sense to me—I’ve always had friends and like being the center of attention, so I never thought of myself as an anxious or generally sad person.
But that’s the stigma of mental health disorders; we don’t often talk about them publicly, so when the diagnosis came I thought I was fucking crazy and went into denial. I went into a dark place and was certain I wouldn’t get out. After finally accepting what was going on, I sought help and fought to get healthy again.
Now, I’m not a musician. But I’m sensitive to this topic, not only because I care so much about music, but because I’ve had some of my closest friends lose their loved ones to suicide. I decided to write this piece because the only way to break the stigma of mental health disorders is to speak up and talk about it. There’s a lack of understanding about mental health which allows the entertainment industry to exploit artists with mental health disorders.
Amy Winehouse suffered from eating disorders as well as substance abuse. Her brother even once said bulimia killed her, not drugs. But this side of Amy wasn’t covered by the national media, and instead, her drug addiction became a punchline.
In one of the final scenes of Amy, we see footage from her last show in Belgrade, Serbia. It was roughly one month before her death. Not only was Amy physically and mentally unfit for the tour which began in Serbia, she openly admitted to friends that she couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. Nick Shymansky (Amy’s friend and ex-manager) expanded on this in a recent Billboard cover story: “I remember an expert on the news saying that she could drop dead at any minute. But there were still gigs being booked. I would never have anything to do professionally with someone in that state.”
The most disturbing part of the Serbia show footage isn’t that Amy is too inebriated to stand up straight or remember her own lyrics. It’s the crowd, booing to get Amy off the stage. Thousands of people who came to embrace her as fans quickly abandoned her and demanded more from a person who was struggling for their life. Amy was put on a pedestal that put her out of reach from help.
Amy Winehouse birthed some of the most iconic and timeless music we’ve ever heard. But one of the most important lessons we can learn from Amy’s legacy is that we have to change the way we view mental health disorders. We have to fight the stigma associated with addiction, eating disorders, and mental health issues. Artists, people within the music industry, and anybody that has suffered from a mental health illness: tell your story, spread awareness and let others know that they’re not alone.