Why Are Artists and Musicians More Prone to Suicide?
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana at a taping of "MTV Unplugged," in New York City on Nov. 18, 1993.
Aug. 13, 2012 --
The shooting deaths of three people near Texas A&M University today, making this the third major act of gun violence in the United States within the past 30 days, is bound to reignite a debate about gun control. The country was still reeling from the deadly tragedy at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which left 12 people dead, and another act of domestic terrorism at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, leaving seven dead including the shooter. Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas aren't the only states to have their gun laws come under scrutiny following a shooting tragedy. Other states with even more lax laws have also drawn fire.
The killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student who was unarmed at the time, stirred controversy over the application of justice in the shooting. Florida's gun ownership laws came under scrutiny. George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old shooter and self-described neighborhood watch captain, had a concealed carry permit, easily obtained in the state. Florida also has laws in place the protect the use of firearms. A 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law allows the use of deadly force if there's the reasonable expectation of a threat, even if the supposed attacker is unarmed.
Following a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. on Jan. 8, 2011 that left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded and resulted in the deaths of six people, Arizona's gun laws, considered among the nation's most lenient, drew widespread media attention. The state of Arizona allows anyone over age 21 to not only own a firearm, but also conceal a handgun without needing a permit. In fact, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill in January 2010 repealing a law requiring concealed-carry permits, according to NPR. Twice already this year, Arizona state lawmakers have considered two bills loosening gun ownership restrictions. One bill brought before the Arizona Senate would have allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on university campuses, a measure that stalled because of the controversy that ensued from the idea of allowing guns in schools. A second bill drafted in the Arizona House would allow gun owners to carry in public buildings, and is "quietly moving toward passage," according to the Arizona Republic. This photo shows ammunition being sold at the Pima County gun show in 2011 one week after the shooting in Tuscon.
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Nearly five years ago, 32 people at Virginia Tech were killed when a mentally ill student went a on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself. Virginia's laws are similar to restrictions imposed by other states on gun ownership. The state requires permits for concealed carry, which is subject to a review process. The state also has a 22-year-old law requiring criminal background checks on gun sales -- a law which the current governor, Bob McDonnell, says he's evaluating in a January interview with the Virginian Pilot. The state, however, does have what gun control advocates call a major loophole: private dealers may sell firearms at gun shows without a background check. Without a background check, according to gun control proponents, criminals have ready access to weapons at gun shows. In 2011, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman even encouraged potential terrorists in a video statement to take advantage of similar loopholes in the United States. In this photo, mourners hold a vigil following the Virginia Tech massacre.
Mississippi not only has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state; it also has the second-highest number of firearm-related fatalities per 100,000 people. A new law passed in Mississippi in December 2011 allows residents to carry guns in public places, including "bars, courthouses and college campuses," according to a UPI report. Mississippi also has highest "export rates" of any state, that is the number of guns sold in Mississippi to criminals who use them in another, according to a study led by a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Mississippi might have the second-highest rate of gun-related fatalities, but Alaska leads the list -- and also has even more lax gun laws than Mississippi. Nearly 21 people in 100,000 die as a result of a firearm in Alaska. Like Arizona, Alaska law allows for anyone over 21 to purchase a firearm. The state also permits concealed and open carry. There are some restrictions in Alaska, however. While Arizona is currently considering a law allowing guns in public buildings, carrying weapons in these areas is prohibited by Alaska laws. Private business owners also are allowed to use their discretion as to whether they allow firearms in their establishments.
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Like its neighbor Arizona, New Mexico's lax gun ownership laws make it a prime location for buying guns for the purpose of interstate arms trafficking. New Mexico doesn't require permits for purchase, possession or open carry. Concealed carry permits require the completion of a gun safety course. Weapons used by drug cartels in Mexico often originate in the United States due to the ease with which criminals can buy guns and smuggle them across the border, as reported by CNN. These firearms are usually purchased in border states, like New Mexico.
Montana has limited restrictions on gun ownership, requiring permits only for concealed carry. In 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act (PDF), a bill that challenged federal authority of the state to regulate guns made and sold in Montana. The move proved controversial, and the bill has been tied up in the court system.
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Before Kurt Cobain was found dead 20 years ago in his Seattle home, there were several red flags that Nirvana's lead singer was suicidal: a family history of suicide, bipolar disorder and drug addiction.
During a 1991 tour, he admitted to using heroin to push away suicidal thoughts: "This is the only thing that's saving me from blowing my head off right now."
But was his profession as a musician also a risk factor?
It's clear that some artistic professions are more at risk of suicide -- including writers, actors and painters.
The suicide rate of musicians is about three times the national average, according to work by Steve Stack, director of the Center for Suicide Research and a professor at Wayne State University, whose research on occupation and suicide is the most comprehensive to date, covering a period of eight years of death certificates that list occupation.
This alarming statistic measures suicide among all people who are alive, including the very young, whose risk of suicide is low.
But if you measure among the 2,000,000 people who have died each year in the United States, musicians appear to be only slightly more likely to have committed suicide. The percentage of suicides among those who have died is 1.5 percent. The number for musicians is 2.1 percent.
Either way you look at it, Stack says, it's an elevated risk for musicians.
Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana at a taping of "MTV Unplugged," in New York City on Nov. 18, 1993. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Cobain's case, however, seems to be a classic representation of struggles that disproportionately affect artists:
“There's definitely a known connection between creativity and mental illness," said Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Over 90 percent of people who commit suicide had a mental illness, whether it be active or under-treated or undiagnosed, Moutier said.
Many artists and people who commit suicide share character traits such as perfectionism. Common pathways in the brain lead people to both be more creative and experience mood and behavior patterns outside the norm, Moutier said.
Families of creative types should be in tune to their loved ones' changes in behavior, substance use patterns, even changes in sleep.
When real life -- with losses, unexpected events, stresses -- plays in, it can be lethal for those who have access to suicidal means: a bridge without a suicide barrier, for example, or enough medicine in easy-to-open packages, or, as in Cobain's case, a gun.
And real life for artists can be especially challenging, Stack points out.
“(I) developed a new explanation for artist suicide based on artist labor markets," he said. “As an occupational group, artists are more likely than others to experience labor market strains. These strains include unemployment, underemployment, client dependency (in a quest after gigs/contracts), multiple job holding and low incomes. Some work at menial jobs by day and do art at night."
Combined with the higher rates of mental disorders such as manic depression and bipolar disorders, lives of artists are often volatile.
“It's not to say you should squelch creativity, but I do think family support of young adults excited about artistic endeavors is important," Moutier said.