The Arts and Suicide

The Daily Mail reported on a study which found that artists are four times more likely to kill themselves. The Atlantic reported on a study which found that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide. The proneness of creative people to attempt or commit suicide is well-documented. But why should it be? Suicide among creatives is especially difficult to understand when they are highly successful, when they apparently have everything to live for. This means there is a strange disconnect between what is going on in their minds and what is actually in their lives. The reason for the higher suicide rate among creatives is naturally blamed upon the higher depression rate among creatives. But things are not that simple. According to The Atlantic “Bipolar disorder was the only diagnosis found to be more prevalent in people with creativity-based careers, who were overall less likely to be diagnosed with the mental illnesses included in the study.” Note the second part of this sentence. Creative people were overall less likely to be diagnosed with the mental illnesses that were studied (and depression was among the mental illnesses studied).

Theodore Dalrymple, commenting on the devastating 2017 Las Vegas massacre, in which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured many more, notes we must avoid silly psychological explanations for events like these. “Was Paddock insane? We should avoid circular reasoning, according to which, he must have been mad to do such a thing, and did such a thing because he was mad.” Similarly with suicide, we should avoid the circularity of saying that someone must be depressed in order kill themselves, and killed themselves because they were depressed.

Depression is also a poor explanation of suicide, because there are many, many people who have depression and do not commit suicide. Indeed, the vast majority of people with depression will not commit or attempt suicide. This means that depression, on its own, cannot account for suicide. So why do our elites think that a mental illness like depression or the depressive stage of Bipolar disorder, is a completely sufficient explanation for suicide? They would like to avoid the conclusion that suicide is a voluntary act for which people bear responsibility. They would like to avoid the idea that suicide cannot be explained sufficiently by hopeless emotions, but in actual fact require, as decisive factors, a particular thought process driven by particular ideas which are made manifest through a voluntary act of will. Hopeless emotions are only a part of the puzzle and not even close to being a sufficient explanation.

The study reported upon by The Atlantic showed that people in creative careers were overall less likely to suffer from the mental illnesses they studied. So what explains the  higher suicide rate of creatives then? One hypothesis that should be considered is the prevalence of sensualism and hedonism among the artistic class, especially where we are now as a culture. Artistic types have always been known to be more likely to hold a sensualist ideology, whereby emotions and desires and pleasurable experiences are seen as the important things in life. And the absence of these things, consequently, will lead them to think that a life is empty and meaningless. Some of this is understandable. It is the job of actors, fiction writers, screenwriters, musicians and various other entertainers to focus on emotion: to make certain emotions come to life in their characters, and to evoke certain emotions in the audience. It will be easy for such a person, who spends his life focusing on emotions, to come to think that emotions are the most important things in life. This is especially true of our own society, where entertainment enjoys a type of primacy which it did not have in the past ( partly because our society is more hedonistic than it was in the past). So not only does the daily life of the entertainer encourage him to be preoccupied with emotional quality, he is surrounded by a society which constantly reinforces this way of looking at the world and at human life.

The scandals and the culture of Hollywood give evidence for the idea that it is driven by the ideology of sensualism. This includes a distaste for any morality and religion which hampers the free expression of emotion and desire, an inability to maintain a monogamous relationship, the celebration of sexual promiscuity on-screen and off, fits of anger, petty crimes driven by impulsivity, alcoholism and of course, the constant presence and apparent social acceptance ( among Hollywood elites) of illegal, hard drugs.

Clearly, these things are not isolated to Hollywood, but Hollywood is a place where they are on easy display because of its visibility. And it should also be noted that there are many successful entertainers who are not like this, or who were like this but genuinely changed their lives. So I don’t want to assign blame recklessly. But if you do what many famous actors do in most other industries, your professional reputation would be destroyed. Sensualist ideology is definitely a greater problem among entertainers, than it is elsewhere, and responsibility should be taken for this, especially because of their position of influence. Famous entertainers are role models to a lot of young people, and insofar as these famous entertainers have a sensualist ideology, the next generation will be influenced by it and will bear all the negative consequences that it so clearly engenders. Do you want your children to have three failed marriages and a drug problem?

The reason sensualism seems so compelling and popular is because it is the default position toward which we tend. We all feel tempted to give our emotions and desires primacy. Doing so, and then getting burned, is part of growing up. But our cultural moment is so dangerous because this is not even regarded as wrong. Sensualism is not regarded as vice, but as virtue, as a glorious and noble rebellion against the forces of malicious repression, represented by traditional religion and morality. If you pay attention, you will find this theme over and over and over again in movies, in novels, in stand-up comedy. It’s everywhere in popular culture.

Realize that your actions, even those that seem clearly linked to intense emotions, have less to do with those emotions than you may think. It is often not what we feel, but how we think about what we feel that turns out to be all-important in how we behave.

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