Why Have We Lost So Many Great Artists to Substance Abuse?

When the first reports of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death came in a few months ago, my first thought was sadness that another great actor passed away. After the initial thoughts and emotions faded, I couldn’t help but wonder why these deaths continue to happen. So many great actors and musicians have passed away over the past 20 years and while on the surface the artists in these industries say all the right things at the time, the behaviors and actions of those very same people show that it’s not about a lesson being learned but rather something much bigger at the root of these systemic problems. In working with several young and aspiring actors and musicians, the ones with the more intense emotions and emotion regulation issues are the ones who tend to be the most promising and creative but also the most troubled. I was speaking with a client the other day who said that he is having problems with his girlfriend because the role he is auditioning for is a bit dark and he finds himself getting consumed with some intense emotions that make him want to isolate himself…even describing a hangover of that emotion for 2 weeks after the audition ended. When we look at actors such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger and River Phoenix or musicians such as Kurt Cobain, Lane Staley and Bradley Nowell; all artists with incredible talent, intense emotional performances/writing, intense emotional turmoil in their lives, and all turned to heroin to and eventually overdosed. It was not as if they did not know that their drug use could kill them, Phillip Seymour Hoffman said multiple times that he was afraid that we was going to die. In my experience and professional opinion, the things that made them so great were the things that eventually killed them. They could harness their emotions and project that onto their medium, but in life it was much much harder to tame and measure. It was not a coincidence that depressants were their drugs of choice because they directly act and regulate the emotional centers of the brain. It is romantic in a messed up way to think of Heath Ledger overdosing because he was so into his roles, but in reality it was his intense emotions that made him dive into and swim in a role and his inability to manage those emotions outside of his life is what killed him. I hope studios, producers, agents, and managers take note and help understand why this is happening and take better care of their clients because their Oscar winning performance in one movie might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back…with a audience losing an icon, a studio losing an actor, an agent losing a client, and a family losing a child/spouse/parent.