The numbers don't add up

The myth about rock stars living fast and dying young obscures a much more complex question of mental health, writes Lucy Nichol

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It might sound counterintuitive criticising this media idea – especially given that my own novel is called The Twenty Seven Club. But that’s the point. I’m all for highlighting bad ideas, then tearing them apart. If we don’t shine a light on them, if we don’t look them straight in the eye, how can we possibly consider an alternative explanation?

As with all headlines, adding a simple one-liner (or, in this case, a number) to a series of highly complex human stories has created a music myth that has persisted for decades. Rock stars seem to die aged 27. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Kristen Pfaff – the list goes on. But in focusing on the number, are we simply giving ourselves an easy to digest explanation? A reason that’s easy to understand, and doesn’t require us to face the truth – that life can be pretty challenging regardless of the pedestal you’re placed on.

It’s the same with conspiracy theorists, in my view anyway. Take the pandemic – something frightening and ugly and fatal took hold of our world, shook us all up, then killed so many. The truth is hard to comprehend, isn’t it? Why have some people died of Covid when they were so young and seemingly well? Why have some been left with long Covid? Why have some not suffered at all? If we accept that we have no control and no in-depth knowledge about this new disease, it’s more frightening and confusing. It’s easier to create our own narrative – Covid is a man-made thing, it’s no worse than the flu and it won’t harm me.

While rock stars who died aged 27 had their age and profession in common, it doesn’t explain why them, does it?

The truth is that, while all those who died had Covid in common, they also had so many complex and intricate contributing factors. Nobody knows why one person died and another didn’t. Similarly, while rock stars who died aged 27 had their age and profession in common, it doesn’t explain why them, does it?

One thing that seems to be consistent in the stories of Cobain, Winehouse, Pfaff, Joplin and Hendrix is drugs (and I include alcohol in that). But while their career might have enabled – even normalised – their use of drugs, I very much doubt it was the driving force behind it. After all, if you gave the same amount of booze to 100 people over the course of a year, they’re not all going to develop a dangerous habit.

When it comes to mental health and addiction, there’s often so much going on. Of course, in some cases of mental illness there is perhaps a psychiatric reason behind the problem – a chemical imbalance, perhaps. But from what I can see (and this is based purely on my layperson’s observations), there are usually co-morbid problems, genetic factors, life experiences and circumstances that all combine. Put simply, the number 27 doesn’t kill rock stars – a perfect combination of harmful stars aligned and created the problem.

In the same way, a perfect combination of stars align to create recovery. You can put anybody in rehab, but if the conditions or therapies don’t suit the individual, or if they haven’t yet made peace with the idea of not drinking or using again, or if they have no support network or decent home or job when they leave rehab, they’re not going to have the best possible chance of getting – and staying – well.

This is why labels, diagnoses, numbers, stereotypes mean very little on their own. Of course, diagnoses are useful in helping us to understand the bigger picture, but they’re just one part of it. When you think about recovery from a mental health problem, like my own experience of having an anxiety disorder, I needed a whole range of things to happen – the meds alone wouldn’t simply fix the problem. I needed to cut down on caffeine, to have therapy, to exercise more, to practice CBT and to take antidepressants. Even when we consider one type of mental health problem and one type of treatment, such as medication, we sometimes might need a combination of meds to get us well (I know I’ve had a combination of antidepressants and beta blockers at times to deal with one issue–- anxiety).

As somebody who has written extensively about mental health stigma, and experienced it personally, I believe that one of the most powerful ways to challenge it, as demonstrated so brilliantly by the national campaign Time to Change (which sadly had to close its doors recently due to its funding being stopped), is through real human stories. We might have stigma in common, but we’re so much more than the “stigma club”. Which makes me think that, when it comes to the real stories of struggling performers living in the public eye, we shouldn’t pretend to know the “why”. And we should stop assuming that the stereotypically messy world of rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle choice.

Lucy Nichol’s novel The Twenty Seven Club is out now. Lucy will be joining Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam to talk all things music and writing on 16 September at Wrecking Ball Music and Books in Hull. Tickets are available from Amy Winbwhouse photo: Fionn Kidney

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