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What music history can teach us about mental challenges

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I’m a week away from being done with my music appreciation class. I have found this class to be highly enjoyable and enlightening. The book has covered the lives of many of the most well-known composers throughout music history. One thing that has been incredibly thought-provoking to me in studying the lives of these men is seeing how many of them had serious mental struggles, illnesses, disabilities, and early deaths.

Bach died at age 60 of a stroke

Beethoven struggled with social life and relationships (possibly bipolar or manic depressive). He went deaf at age 28, and died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 56.

Chopin died at age 39 due to tuberculosis. 

Mozart died at age 35 due to an unexplained illness. It is possible that he was on the autism spectrum or had Tourettes.

Schubert died at age 31 of syphilis.

Schumann may have been bipolar or schizophrenic. “…he tried to drown himself and was committed to an asylum, where he died two years later” at age 46.

Mendelssohn died of a stroke at age 38. 

Tchaikovsky may have attempted suicide and led a very troubled life. He died at age 53.

Brahms died of cancer at age 64.

Richard Wagner may have suffered from bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. He died of a heart attack at age 69.

This is just a sampling of some of the composers we have studied.

Related: 

Classical Composers and Their Maladies 

CLASSICAL MUSIC; Though This Were Madness, Was There Yet Method in it?

What music history can teach us about mental challenges and mental illness

I find this all very fascinating. I have recently moving away from believing much of the ideology that comes out of the “natural parenting” movement. Probably the biggest reason for this change is my family’s own struggle with mental illness. My husband currently takes medication for anxiety, depression, and a sleep disorder. My son takes ADHD stimulant medication and medication for sleep. Six months ago, I went on anxiety medication as well.

The difference these medications have made for our family’s well-being and stability is staggering. Nor can any other attempted alternatives even come close to having had the same effects. I’ve spent thousands of my family’s hard-earned dollars on chiropractic, essential oils, health food and drinks, and supplements. The effects on our mental states were minimal, if not completely non-existent.

Thus, I am admittedly quite hyper-sensitive when people have negative things to say about medications for mental health reasons. Ignorant Facebook memes are some of the worst offenders:

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The natural living rhetoric stands aghast at the rates of autism, ADHD, and other mental illnesses diagnosed today (not to mention other diseases such as cancer). They look to blame vaccines, diet, toxins, chemicals, and on and on the list goes. The push for a return to natural lifestyle is all encompassing.

I wonder if we are looking at history through rose-colored glasses.

Mental illness is nothing new. Share on X

Some of the most influential people of human history suffered from debilitating mental struggles.

I look over this list of composers – their diseases, mental conditions, and early deaths. I wonder how the lives of these composers would have been drastically different had they had access to early diagnostics, mental counseling, psychiatric medication, and modern healthcare. What more music could they have offered our world but never had the chance to? 

I have new respect for these men, now that I daily deal with mental challenges myself. I can better understand both bursts of musical genius and the intense spiral of negative behaviors, depression, mania, and madness.

I’m ever so thankful that we live in 2016 and have access to psychiatric care that makes our life better, giving us the opportunity to enjoy the music that they left us more completely.

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