Ian Curtis was the lead singer and lyricist for a band called Joy Division, an important and influential group that shaped the direction of punk music. He and the other band members emerged from the dreary, industrial landscape of Manchester, England. Seemingly fitting, Joy Division’s sound was also cold and dark with an underlying, emotional release that shined through Curtis’ words and phrases. However, while the group’s surroundings may have been one contributing factor to his saddened expression, a strong set of other reasons may have driven his psychological condition to extreme lengths.
On May 18th, the night before the band’s first American tour, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in his home. As with many performers, leading a life on the road and dedicating wholehearted energy to a new crowd each night was an incredibly tasking experience on the individual. His touring schedule also took a toll on his marriage, especially while raising a young child at the time. Most of all, Curtis also suffered from epilepsy in the form of recurring seizures and blackouts. Although he did receive treatment, the medication Curtis received actually increased his mood instability, especially his depressive episodes. Due to the buildup of these external stressors and internal conflicts, Curtis’ depression eventually took control.
Many instances of depression are coupled with a coexisting condition. While mental disorders can be often linked to medical disorders like epilepsy, they can also be related with other mental illnesses. For example, a study found that more than 50 percent of those with a diagnosed depressive disorder met the criteria for an anxiety disorder and vice versa. In addition, the pain and distress associated with depression may turn a person to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. This can begin a vicious cycle that worsens the condition and also establishes an equally dangerous addiction. Regardless of the dysfunctions that impact an individual, the best course of action is treating co-occurring disorders simultaneously in a process called dual diagnosis.
In an article written for “The Guardian”, Joy Division’s bass player Peter Hook expressed that for him and his band mates, understanding the severity of their singer’s condition was very difficult, especially while on the cusp of breaking into major, mainstream success. He stated, “Ian was his own worst enemy – he never wanted to upset you, so he’d tell you what you wanted to hear. So we never knew what he was suffering or thinking.”
This unsettling testimony to Curtis’ condition highlights a major aspect of untreated depression. The existence of the disorder may go untreated by remaining hidden and below the observable surface. Dr. Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., stated that depressive symptoms in men are especially masked by distracting complaints, irritability and co-occurring substance abuse. For example, various mental health symptoms may be manifested in the form of chronic headaches or stomach pains, sometimes unknown to the person suffering. Hidden depression can occur in anyone, so it is important to devote time and attention to a wide range of circumstances, from a person who expresses even the slightest signs of dysfunctional thoughts, feelings or behavior to someone who has experienced great pain or trauma and does not even express it.
Curtis appeared to express himself truthfully through his music, much more so than his social interactions. Although identifying the signs of his worsening depression may have been clouded by various defense mechanisms, some lyrics provide a clearer call for help:
I feel it closing in,
As patterns seem to form
I feel it cold and warm
As shadows start to fall
I feel it closing in, I feel it closing in
Day in, day out (Curtis, 1978)
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.
Isolation, isolation, isolation (Curtis, 1980)
Through his delivery of lyrics, Ian Curtis did attempt to relate his internal struggle as best he could. Today, there are over 20 years of research that support the use of expressive writing as an effective type of therapy. Writing about traumatic or emotional experiences has been shown to significantly lower short- and long-term distress, negative moods and even bodily symptoms tied to many mental health conditions. However, there is never just one solution to serious ailments such as depression. Therapy should be supplemented with necessary medication and other supportive resources. Although diehard listeners of his music most likely identified with Curtis’ expression in some way or another, the distance between the 23-year-old artist and his fans was not close enough to offer the support he needed.
When dealing with a disorder that reframes suicide as a possible path, professional help must be administered at a much higher degree. Although Curtis was taking medication, he also needed a support system and a calmer environment that could allow him to talk out his issues rather than endure them alone. If anything, his story emphasizes the importance of reaching out to a person stricken by major depressive episodes.
Many local treatment centers are available for those who suffer from various mood disorders and other coexisting conditions. A mental illness of any kind can evolve into a serious obstacle that can compromise a person’s daily functioning and even his or her life. Sovereign Health of California utilizes dual diagnosis to treat the source of depression as well as its symptoms. If you or a loved one suffers from depression, contact our 24/7 live chat or call (866) 819-0427 immediately for more information on how to get help.
Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer