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Musicians’ Mental Health

Over the last few years, the mental health and wellbeing of musicians has been a subject of much discussion. The story behind the tragically early death of Amy Winehouse shown in Asif Kapadia’s documentary in 2015 got a lot of people thinking about the unique pressures faced by artists, and how the business that they work in may exacerbate stress and anxiety, leading to self destructive behaviour as a way of dealing with it. When Winehouse died, she’d been suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, and an eating disorder, for the most commercially successful part of her career. Despite clearly appearing not well enough to be on stage and working, she was in the public eye, writing and releasing music, and touring the world. Since then, artists including Lady Gaga, Olly Alexander of Years & Years, DJ Ben Pearce and Selena Gomez have spoken out about suffering from mental health issues. More recently, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington have both committed suicide after struggling with depression.

Many studies have long suggested there’s a link between creative people and mood disorders like bipolar. A recent Help Musicians report suggested that the music community may be up to three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety when compared to the general public. There’s a wealth of reasons for musicians being at high risk of developing poor mental health. Making music is a deeply personal process and an integral part of an artists’ being, which can lead to frustration, anxiety and depression if that need to create is not satisfied or compromised. “If you’ve got a creative spark in you and you’re a musician, you need to use it,” says producer Yvonne Ellis in the qualitative part of Help Musicians’ study. “It can be a curse, because if you’re not being creative then it can make you ill, it can make you depressed. I found that to be very true in the times that I’ve not been creative.” Because it’s so personal, praise or criticism can feel like judgements of character, and social media brings a wealth of opportunity for negative feedback to be voiced.

In addition, the freelance nature of a music career, and the challenge to make money from it, results in uncertainty around the quality of output and makes planning for the future difficult. For those working in the commercial music industry and earning a decent living, pressure comes in the form of having to write the next ‘hit’ and fear of being pushed aside for what might be deemed to be ‘the next big thing’ in an industry obsessed with the new. Traditional barometers of success—like getting a record deal, being booked on a tour or having a song in the charts—can be a result of who you know or being in the right place at the right time, so talent alone doesn’t offer any guarantees.

When careers do start making money, a whole host of other potential stressors come into the picture. The majority of income is now made on the road so artists are touring more than ever. Travelling can result in lack of sleep due to jet lag, less opportunity for exercise and a disrupted diet, while drugs and alcohol, readily available at afterparties, momentarily soften post-show comedowns and can be a crutch. Family and friends are far away, and support networks become those who are part of an artist’s team. That team have financial incentives for keeping someone working who may need a break, and following a creative path that may not truly reflect who they are. There’s also importance placed on maintaining a certain persona or look that might be unhealthy or unnatural, offering little opportunity for a musician to relax and be themselves, especially when spending so much time away from home.

So what support is available? Charities Help Musicians and Music Support have both made supporting the mental health and wellbeing of those working in music a priority over the last few years. Help Musicians is in the process of building a service that offers a helpline for those in need, offering counselling as well as clinical support, financial help and legal advice to every element of the music industry ecosystem. CEO Richard Robinson says they want to be able to expand the service and bring it into music industry companies like record labels. When it comes to preventative measures, creative coach Clare Scivier, who has a long history of working in the music business, has been vocal about the need for artists to have a team around them that’s as extensive as that given to sports stars.

“Professional footballers have an entire crew to look at every element,” Scivier explains. “If you walk into a record company, there’s a press department and marketing, but there’s nothing about physical health at all. Artists have to be athletes these days physically and mentally, they have to be resilient. British Airways cabin crew have rules about how long they can fly and how many days off they have. DJs and artists don’t. It’s treated far too much as ‘you’re having it good now, and it could all be over tomorrow.’ We need to consider the long term rather than quick, cash in while we can, because these artists are being burnt out.”

Scivier has launched her own charity called Your Green Room, which aims to provide support for artists who’ve been dropped from deals to get back on their feet and into work. That, and an initiation programme that gives acts newly signed to deals the knowledge required to look after themselves and sustain a long career, is something Robinson says he can imagine Help Musicians considering supporting in future. “We need to look at what you might call mental health first aid, as well as preventative, and quite how we do that will be down to our next phase,” he explains.

That next phase is about listening to organisations both in and outside the music industry to help develop more ways of supporting individuals who are at risk of having mental health issues. Robinson adds: “As part of our phased approach to delivering a mental health service, there will naturally be programmes and areas of support that will come as things develop. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of those initiatives suggested are things we make a decision about over the next year or so. But we can’t do this on our own, we need to work with the industry hand in hand.” In terms of support from the music business, industry trade body BPI has given funding to Music Support, while Sony Music U.K. is fundraising for mental health charity Mind over the next 12 months, in order to increase awareness and understanding around mental health.

Music Support, which is founded by people who have worked in the music business, has launched a helpline, and erected safe tents backstage at festivals. Those provide a place for everyone working at the event to go to if they need a break, and to find out where they can get further help if needed. Co-Founder Andy Franks was inspired to launch the charity after struggling with alcoholism while working as a tour manager for Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Depeche Mode. He says: “We’ve experienced it from the inside so we know the problems and pressures people are under, and we can talk on a much greater one to one basis with people thanks to our own experience and knowledge. There are very strict pressures that we feel ourselves under and there is a certain way of communicating that is specific to our business, so when we want to get help we don’t necessarily know where to go outside of that. We ask within, we ask our own people, and if they don’t know the answer there’s a bit of a problem.”

Music Support have a four step triage that’s used to assess people who ring the helpline, and there are a range of solutions available. Callers can access a clinical assessment and be directed to rehab, or they might be forwarded on to The Samaritans. Training and education is something Franks wants to provide in future in order to better prepare budding musicians and executives for all aspects of the industry, and a wellbeing mentor programme is also in the works. “The next generation of people who want to be involved in the music business don’t necessarily think about the downsides to it,” Franks adds. “We want to be able to go in and talk to people in colleges or at the start of tours, and have a space backstage where people can come in and have a chat. Large groups of people who are working incredibly stressful jobs need somewhere they can get help or respite. One place is at the bar or with drugs, and the other option could be somewhere set aside where they come and sit with us.”

Independent companies, like Music for Mental Wealth, also offer support through coaching. Says Co-Founder Laura Westcott: “We dig deep into anxiety, find out why someone wants to be a musician and then reassure them that they are on the right path to fulfilling their goals and dreams. Stress and anxiety can be a block, and it comes from pressure you put on yourself to deliver and self doubt. As soon as you realise that you’re perfect the way you are, let creativity flow through you and remove the ego from what you’re delivering, stress and anxiety diminishes. Our main goal is to make people feel good about themselves.”

While being involved in the business of music can have negative side effects, music itself has proven to be a healer. Research suggests listening and making music can help alleviate mental health issues, and music therapy is also used to treat those with learning difficulties, autism and dementia. Singer and songwriter Melissa Jane has used her history with depression to raise awareness of mental health issues and reach fellow sufferers. Through her SING4SANE project, Jane has been hosting public sing-a-longs and workshops.

“Music can be a powerful tool for getting through lots of things, we have music that we listen to that lifts us out of troubles and music we listen to when we’re feeling great that gives us another boost,” she says. “I see it with my weekly singing group, during my darkest days when I’ve thought I really don’t think I can go tonight, I’ve pushed myself out of the door and got there, and at the end of the hour and a half I feel like a different person. My situation is still the same, nothing else has changed aside from my mindset. That’s purely down to singing and connecting with those people who have the right energy.” Alongside daily practice of meditation, yoga and spending time outside, Jane keeps her mental health in check by making sure she’s got autonomy over her career.

“I’ve faced the highs and the lows of doing a show and feeling fantastic, and then the next day feeling like, well what is that all about because I’m still back to square one, I haven’t got any further, I’m still sending CDs out and no one takes any notice. How can that be after I’ve just performed? It slaps you in the face constantly. One of my ways of trying to get through it is realising that I can’t do things the music industry way, whatever that is.” Instead of banging on doors and looking for deals, Jane has created her own opportunities and built an engaged fanbase by spending time connecting with the people who listen to her music.

“Because of what we are taught about the industry, I think too many artists feel that we have to have somebody validate what we do by managing us or by being our label. Of course help is useful, and I’m at a point where I need an extra pair of hands, but that doesn’t mean I have to hand everything over to someone to manage on my behalf. The more control and awareness you can have of how the industry acts and what it does, the less you can get caught up in all the showbiz. You’ve got to be able to integrate in life generally as everybody does. If you don’t and you just stay up there in the bubble, the bump is going to be much harder when you come back down.”

to have somebody validate what we do by managing us or by being our label. Of course help is useful, and I’m at a point where I need an extra pair of hands, but that doesn’t mean I have to hand everything over to someone to manage on my behalf. The more control and awareness you can have of how the industry acts and what it does, the less you can get caught up in all the showbiz. You’ve got to be able to integrate in life generally as everybody does. If you don’t and you just stay up there in the bubble, the bump is going to be much harder when you come back down.”