Saturday, 22 July 2017

Chester Bennington. We need to talk about it.

This week brought the tragic news of yet another relatively young father taking his own life. This one was famous, and famous particularly for lyrical angst. This was something that some people dismissed as mere sales-related, unhappy-teen-attracting, pseudo-angry posturing, of course, as is often the case with 'angry music', or anything that tries to use a musical medium to say anything more meaningful than 'Oooo I love you baby'.

We need to talk about mental health. We need to talk about changing public attitudes, and we need to talk about healthcare policy issues, and we need to talk about it in relation to our selves and our own lives. Thankfully awareness of that has been improving in recent years, but there's a very long way to go. It's not just about talking about problems when they start to get serious, because that can be too late to make a real difference. It's about understanding that this is something that can and does happen to anyone, anywhere, and in any walk of life. It's about destroying the taboo - understanding that mental health is an issue for every person, every day, just as physical health is.

We have public campaigns relating to eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and so on. We've had many such campaigns about physical dangers like seat belts in cars, swimming in dangerous waters, and so on. Where are the big public campaigns about maintaining mental health, though? It's an improvement to be saying that we should be talking about mental illness when it's already happened, and there have been campaigns on that, but that's not quite the same thing - we're trying to make people understand that suffering from a mental illness is a normal thing, but we need to look at prevention more too. We need to think about that. We need to talk about it.

Obviously there are some circumstances that can make problems worse, or make them more likely, and we have to consider and try to address those too. Poverty, and an endless daily struggle to physically survive, is just one example. It's not the only one, but on that specific issue I was very interested to here some comments recently about the potential benefits of 'Universal Basic Income'. As a Liberal, my instinct is to be wary of such an apparently 'redistributive' approach, but as a pragmatist I'm certainly interested in evidence relating to such a benefit - if it does, as has been suggested, really make a significant difference to the mental well-being of those struggling most in society, then I think it's certainly an approach worth looking at. Indeed, we have a duty to look seriously at it, whatever our ideological instincts might suggest to us.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little, though - poverty probably wasn't the main direct issue for a hugely successful multi-millionaire rock star. What were the factors in this case? How much stemmed from early life, and how much was later? How much was 'nature' and how much 'nurture'? What kind of stresses were being put on him, and how was he helped to deal with them? I'm obviously not going to speculate on the answers to those kind of questions - I didn't know him personally, and it wouldn't be fair or right to wander off into such an uninformed discussion. We do know that the factors can be many and varied in different cases, though, and it's unlikely to be the direct result of one single isolated factor. We need to think about all of those possible factors and how they apply to people across the huge spectrum of human lives.

It's not just about individual, personal 'coping mechanisms' - we need to consider the way in which our lives are organised and run - the pressures and expectations being put on people in all kinds of ways. It seems to me that, more and more, life is becoming about expectations and even deliberately applied stresses, in the belief that we have to quantify everything about everyone and apply standards of 'success' and 'failure'. Everything seems to be about competition and 'winning at life' in some way - we do it to children in schools, for example, 'testing' them from a very young age and putting huge pressure on them to at least 'meet expectations' and 'reach standards'. It might be that the pressure is unintentional, but it's still there - it's on teachers to 'get results', and it's on parents to prove how wonderful their child is compared with others, and if we think that isn't transmitted to the minds of the children themselves we are living in a fantasy world.

We have to think about that kind of thing when we look at any kind of policy, and we have to be able to talk about it too - there are too many elephants in too many rooms when we talk about public policy. We need to remember that these 'numbers' are always human beings, with real lives, real minds, and real combinations of circumstances. Obviously we can't ever remove any kind of stress or pressure from everybody's minds, but we have to understand that the effect is cumulative in the individual. Doing a school test at a very young age, and being pushed to do well because it's a statistic that actually matters (if not to them directly, to those who are pushing them), may not seem like a huge thing in itself, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. The modern (western, particularly) world, with all of its pressures of expectation driven now by ready accessible and universally accessed multi-media in a way that has never existed before, is a place full of expectations of all kind, and full of fears of being a failure in some way or another (and mental illness is itself often still considered a 'failure', of course).

It's not just about sorting out our attitude to mental illness, but about sorting out our attitude to mental health in our daily lives, and in our public policy, and in the pressures and expectations we put on people who are apparently 'mentally healthy'. In policy terms, it's vital that we understand that it's not just about fixing the problems of treatment in the health service (though that is a huge issue, of course), but about trying to understand the impact of everything we do on the mental well-being of everyone who has to live with the results. It's not just about supporting people when something has gone wrong with their mental health, but about supporting people so that these problems aren't happening to so many of them. I don't pretend that's at all easy, of course, or that it is all under the direct influence of politicians, parties and governments. There are many people individually involved in many different ways in the complicated networks of human lives. That's why we need to talk about it.

So let's now talk about Chester Bennington, and about Linkin Park. I guess it's hard for some people to understand the context of just how huge, and how important, a band they have been. Although they are a name many probably know vaguely, and they have had some chart success of course, that doesn't really put it into context for a more 'mainstream' music audience. Their debut Hybrid Theory album is, without a shadow of doubt, among the most important and influential albums of all time, and one of the biggest selling albums worldwide of this century (estimated to be about 30 million copies, with their next album not being too far behind). That's a total up there with the likes of Abbey Road, Born in the USA and The Wall, but it was only released in 2000.

Of course, that's only part of the story - Hybrid Theory was a huge 'moment' in music and in time. It was at the start of the Nu Metal movement, and mixed different musical genres in a way that really caught the imagination of a generation of young fans. Ask any community of Heavy Metal (or related) fans about the album that was there 'gateway' into that kind of heavier music, and Hybrid Theory will be one of the most popular answers - probably the most popular of all, in fact. I'm a little (OK, a lot!) older myself, of course, but it was huge for me too - it was the time of MTV2, when there was suddenly a new generation of heavy music that was getting exposure, and it was a major part of what brought many older fans of heavier music back into discovering new music. It was genuinely something original and exciting, following on from the frankly dreary period of 'grunge' and 'brit pop' nostalgia-driven music that had all but drained the life out of the 'mainstream' rock and metal world in the 1990s. It's bigger even than that, though - it connected across genres too, and brought many fans of Hip-Hop to metal and vice versa. It wasn't isolated and alone in experimenting in that way, of course, coming after early works of bands like Korn, Papa Roach and Slipknot, but it was the one that hit the blend in just the right way at just the right time to become truly a global phenomenon.

I think it's fair to say that the band never quite recreated that moment of their debut (and arguably second) album. They modified their sound in ways that many didn't take to in the same way. They remained, however, one of the biggest bands on the live circuit, headlining major festival to huge crowds. I have seen them twice, in 2007 and 2014, both only partial sets at festivals (latter parts of sets after watching bands at other stages), and they were certainly a great live band to watch. In the usual way of these things, a heavier band very often doesn't quite get the public recognition of more easily accessible pop counterparts, but Linkin Park have been one of the biggest bands of the twenty first century in terms of sales and influence.

I don't pretend they are a particular favourite band of mine, obviously, hence only watching part of their sets when I've had the chance. Hybrid Theory is a fantastic album, but it's the only one I really like, and I find it a little 'of its time' in some ways now. It's not something I listen to often, although I am listening to it as I type, and it's one of those albums that I always enjoy listening to a little more than I expect to, even though I know it backwards. That doesn't diminish their importance as a band, obviously, or the success that they have rightly enjoyed over the last 2 decades.

That's a fairly long description of their importance, but it's impossible to over-emphasise, and Chester Bennington was very much at the centre of all that. So how does someone so successful come to choose to take their own life? It seems hard to understand - there's what might be called the usual collection of 'baggage' for a rock star, of course, but it seemed from the outside like he had his life in order more recently, and had everything going for him. Fame, success, money, a family - things that many people would envy. That's the point, though - it is hard to understand for anyone who hasn't experienced the kind of mental issues that convert stresses and expectations into something so negative. It's easy to say 'get over it', but it doesn't work like that. It's easy to say 'get help' and 'talk about it' too, but if that were so easy to do we'd have less tragic stories like this.

We need to understand that, which is itself not easy from the outside - it's hard to put yourself in the mental situation of someone else who isn't you, and who may not think quite like you. That's why it's so important to understand that those pressures work differently for different people, and the need to consider the pressures we put other people under at all stages in life, personally and in policy terms. What might seem a simply thing to you or me, might be a mental wall to climb for someone else - even if we walk in their shoes, we can't think in their minds. That, as we know, applies to 'famous' people as much as 'ordinary' people - this isn't the first such apparent suicide of someone who should be on top of the world, and sadly I'm sure it won't be the last. We also need to think about the pressures they are under, even if they are very different from our own (and, as an aside, we need to talk about the tabloids, too - those 'celebrity gossip' victims are human beings too).

One more thing I'd like to mention, in connection with mental health and the 'angst' in the music of bands like Linkin Park - the sometimes suggested link between angry and/or depressing music with anger and depression. It's a subject which I think is widely misunderstood, and some suggest that music and associated cultural lifestyles can lead to mental health issues. I think they are very wide of the mark there. There may well be some statistical link, but if anything it is the other way around - those who are suffering are drawn towards music and culture that speaks to them and reflects their suffering. Whether it be the darker aesthetic, or the musical and lyrical anger, of heavier forms of music, those things are very often a release for people - knowing that someone else has been where they are, and has felt like they felt, can be a huge thing for them. As well as Linkin Park being cited as a 'gateway' band into heavier music, they are also commonly cited as a band that have got people through some very hard times with their music and lyrics. Some like to suggest that darker, angrier music and culture can drive people into tragic situations - I know that it has saved many people from such situations. Sadly, it can't save everybody.

Finally, I think it would be wrong to talk about all this without remembering Chester Bennington and Linkin Park at their finest. This video was from the second and last performance I saw part of, and happens to be my favourite song from that Hybrid Theory album. Even if it's not your thing, do please take the time to watch and listen. The music matters a great deal to many people, and I think it's important to try to understand that (even if you don't particularly like it) to see this tragedy in its full context.

R.I.P. Chester Bennington

And if anybody is struggling, now or at any time, there are people out there who can help you:

Look after yourselves, and each other.

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