Views And Reviews

That stupid club Press response to Kurt Cobain's suicide

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.308.6941.1447 (Published 28 May 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:1447
  1. S Manchip

    On Tuesday 5 April 1994 Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the American rock group Nirvana, committed suicide. Nirvana was one of the most successful groups of recent times; the album “Never-mind” grossed over $100 million. Their style of “grunge” music was a combination of punk rock and heavy metal. The lyrics were about alienation and despair.

    The suicide was reported widely in the media. The Guardian and the Observer ran articles in their weekend magazines. The music press gave prominent coverage to Cobain's death. O magazine spent 11 pages discussing his life story and the events leading up to him shooting himself.

    Most of these articles concentrated on the separation of his parents when he was 8. They also spent time going over his opiate misuse and chronic, medically undiagnosed abdominal pain. The Financial Times in its obituary wrote that he had “taken the easy way out.” Select, a monthly music magazine, canvassed 16 fans, who responded that “blowing your brains out is just stupid...he was an idiot... perhaps he wanted to be a rock legend” and blamed the “pressures of fame.” Much was made of the fact that the original title of the group's last album was “I hate myself and I want to die.” Comparisons were made to the premature death of other rock stars - Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Sid Vicious. Kurt Cobain's mother was quoted as saying that he had joined that “stupid club.” Vox music monthly wrote about the “immense pressure of constant touring and the glare of the media spotlight.”

    The possibility of mental illness was not mentioned as a cause of Cobain's death. The term depression was used but not in the sense of a psychiatric illness. Only passing reference was made to the fact that three of his uncles committed suicide. His wife wondered if it “somehow ran in the family.”

    Obviously it is impossible to ascertain if a depressive illness was the underlying psychopathology, but there was a strong family history. The tone of his suicide note - “I feel guilty beyond words...I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music for many years...I don't have the passion any more” - shows guilt and anhedonia, typical of a depressive illness. The producer of the group's last album was quoted as saying “he never seemed thrilled.”

    Despite the recent “Defeat Depression” campaign by the Royal College of Psychiatry and General Practitioners, the media's response shows that there is still a lack of understanding about depression. Nowhere was it written that depression responds to medication. Often suicide is presented as an understandable reaction to tragedy, sometimes even with a romantic aspect, or as personal weakness. The research shows that most suicides are mentally ill before the act and most of those are depressed. This tragedy shows how much work in educating the media and public remains to be done if we are to reduce the burden of depression and the suicide rate.