Even More Songs of Pain: Daniel Johnston, Music and Mental Health

Daniel Johnston was an example of the relationship between music and mental health.

Yesterday the world said goodbye to Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston; an artist whose career, life and legacy are singular in practically every respect, perhaps most notably in their demonstration of the profound connection between music and mental health.

With 17 beautiful, painful and haunting studio albums to his credit, Johnston influenced countless artists and musicians, including Kurt Cobain, Yo La Tengo, Jeff Tweedy, Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth and Tom Waits; became a fixture in the Austin arts community (he painted the famous who painted the city’s famous “Hi How Are You” frog mural near our Austin drug treatment facility); and was the inspiration behind the Austin City Limits event of similar name—he also suffered from schizophrenia and manic-depression, and was institutionalized on multiple occasions.

Memorials and tributes have been in expectedly ample supply; however, one of the aspects of Daniel Johnston’s legacy that’s been missing from these remembrances is how he exemplified music’s ability to transcend all communicative and mental-health barriers.

Respect: Daniel Johnston’s Take on His Own Mental Health

In a recent interview with the Austin Chronicle, Daniel’s close friend of over 30 years, Brian Beattie, discussed the first day he and Glass Eye bandmate Kathy McCarty came to his apartment. Johnston immediately opened The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and read aloud the sections ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘manic Depressive’ saying, “If you’re gonna deal with me, you’re gonna need to understand these kind of symptoms because that’s what I’m like.”

This type of genuine self-awareness seeped into each one of his works, and was a lived reality in every aspect of his life. Johnston never made the rock-star millions, and he struggled with mental illness throughout his entire life; but when he went into the studio or took the stage, he owned the good and bad of his life, and was able to cut through and communicate in a way only music allows. He built a career, legacy and, perhaps most important, a sense of community, through his ability to put all of himself in his music.

Recovery Unplugged would like to thank Daniel Johnston for being, perhaps the clearest example, of the relationship between music and mental health. We extend our sincerest and most profound condolences to his family, and share a deep sense of loss with his legions of devoted fans and admirers…don’t be scared.