James Blake has discussed how the pressures of his early career led to him developing “suicidal thoughts”. “I would say that chemical imbalance due to diet and the deterioration of my health was a huge, huge factor in my depression and eventual suicidal thoughts,” said the 29-year-old British songwriter. “I developed [dietary] intolerances that would lead to existential depression on a daily basis. I would eat a certain thing and then all day I would feel like there was just no point.”
Speaking on a panel about the “suicide crisis in the arts population” at the annual symposium of the Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA) in California on 1 July, Blake discussed how the superficial interactions of touring life left him feeling alienated, Billboard reports. “I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed,” he said. “Your connection to other people becomes surface-level. So if you were only in town for one day and someone asked you how you are, you go into the good stuff, which generally doesn’t involve how anxious you feel [or] how depressed you feel.”
Blake disavowed the idea that mental health issues are concomitant with creativity. “There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius. I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process, too.” He said eye movement desensitation reprocessing therapy (EMDR) – in which patients recall distressing events while performing rapid side-to-side eye movements, hand tapping and hearing auditory tones – “really broke the back of all the traumas and repressions that had led me to depression in the first place”.
He also credited his girlfriend, with whom he lives in Los Angeles, with encouraging him to sever ties with people who enabled his unhealthy behaviour. “Honestly, a lot of catharsis just came in telling lots of people to fuck off. And saying no. Saying no to constant touring. No money will ever be enough.”
Blake said celebrities and public figures should speak out about mental health. “We are the generation that’s watched several other generations of musicians turn to drugs and turn to excess and coping mechanisms that have destroyed them,” he said. “And there are so many high-profile people recently who’ve taken their own lives. We have a responsibility to talk about it and to remove the stigma.”
In May, Blake released a new song, Don’t Miss It, and tweeted a statement in response to the way in which critics have sometimes characterised melancholic emotions in his music. “I can’t help but notice, as I do whenever I talk about my feelings in a song, that the words ‘sad boy’ are used to describe it. I’ve always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings.”
A November 2016 study by charity Help Musicians UK found that 71.1% of respondents believed they had experienced anxiety and panic attacks, and 68.5% had experienced incidences of depression. The research suggested that musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.
Blake found success at the age of 21, with a string of undergound 12-inch singles and EPs that quickly translated into mainstream success. He placed second on the BBC’s Sound of 2011 list and went on to collaborate with artists including Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Bon Iver. Blake has received widespread critical acclaim for his three albums and won the Mercury music prize for his second album, Overgrown, in 2013. His fourth full-length is expected later this year.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
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