Kurt Cobain and the importance of bipolar disorder awareness


Trigger warning: mental illness and suicide.

Last Wednesday would have been Kurt Cobain’s 52nd birthday. Cobain was considered the voice of a generation in the early 1990’s.

People claim that Cobain hated fame and that was to blame for his death.  At their height, Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind became iconic. The following year, it skyrocketed the Billboard charts, beating Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to Number 1.


Kurt Cobain’s death

On the 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home. The death was ruled a suicide.

In the aftermath, it was feared that there would be copycat behaviour. According to research conducted by NCBI, this did not occur, however, there was an increase in calls to counselling and suicide prevention hotlines.



Risk factors

Suicide is often complex, with more than one causation. According to Beyond Blue, there are a number of risk factors that increase a likelihood of someone taking their own lives. These include: mental illness, previous suicide attempts, substance abuse and suicide in the family.


According to former psychiatric nurse and Kurt Cobain’s cousin Beverly Cobain, a number of these factors were present in his life, some starting in childhood. She told Health Day that a number of men in the family had either taken their own lives or had died due to falls while intoxicated.

Cobain had a battle with mental illness for most of his life. His substance abuse and depression were well known. But that may not have been the whole story. Ms. Cobain claimed that Kurt had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child and depression and bipolar disorder as an adult. Whether he was officially diagnosed with BD is debated, but Ms. Cobain insisted that he had signs, including extreme anger.

Facts about bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings from mania or hypomania (more on that later) and severe depression.

There are a number types of bipolar: bipolar I, bipolar II, mixed, rapid cycle and cyclothymic.

Bipolar I: bipolar I is categorised by manic and depressive episodes. Manic episodes can include an uncontrollable euphoria, restlessness, wreckless spending, an inability to sleep, not feeling tired, a sense of grandiosity and inflated self – esteem.

One of the dangers of mania is that people can become psychotic. When this happens, immediate hospitalisation is crucial.

Bipolar II: bipolar II is characterised by hypomanic episodes and depression. Hypomania is defined as a ‘less extreme’ form of mania. Signs can include: ‘flight of ideas’, rapid speech (also known as pressured speech), grandiosity, increased energy and a lack of need for sleep.

Mixed: this isn’t a ‘type’ of bipolar per se but rather something that can happen in either bipolar I or II. Mixed episodes are when a person experiences manic or hypomanic and depressive symptoms at the same time. For example, a sufferer may have a depressed mood, but be restless or productive.

Rapid cycle: rapid cycle is when someone has at least four mood episodes within a year. This is double the number of episodes of other bipolar types. Some experience a mixture of mania, hypomania and depression.


Why is this important when talking about Kurt Cobain and other people?

I never knew Kurt Cobain (obviously), so I do want to be careful. I’m also not an expert on bipolar, so please access other resources for nore (and most likely better) information.

One thing needs to be made clear. Bipolar is NOT depression. Both illnesses require different treatments. So, I believe that when we talk about public figures and mental illness, I think it’s important that the media and society as a whole offers accurate terms for the illnesses. This is what troubled me about a Facebook post that commemorated Kurt Cobain for his birthday.


If anyone is in need of help, please  get it. If you suspect you have bipolar disorder, there are resources from Beyond Blue and Black Dog Institute that can offer information. Black Dog Institute also has a checklist for bipolar disorder that can indicate if you have the condition. However, only a doctor can diagnose you and offer a course of treatment.

Final note: while this post has been researched, this does not necessarily mean my analysis or  descriptions of bipolar are entirely correct or represent experiences of all people with the condition. If you have bipolar disorder or are a health professional with knowledge or expertise in the condition, please leave your knowledge, experiences and any corrections that you think should be made in the comments below.