Mental Health In The Music Industry: A Frank Discussion

Mental Health Music Industry

If you keep up with current events in music, you’ll know that mental health has been a hot topic of late – as it rightly should be. A study earlier this year by Victoria University, one that The Age called “the most extensive study of entertainment industry workers undertaken anywhere in the world”, made national news, and unveiled some shocking statistics. We learned that 25% of artists, and over 50% of roadies have attempted or considered suicide, but none of the roadies surveyed had sought help. We found out that performing artists live much shorter lives, on average, than the rest of working community. The report also showed that “performing artists receive an average income of $44,600, even though the average Australian salary is $78,800 (according to ABS)”.

Artists, in general, have a reputation for being ‘tortured’ – and there may be evidence to back that up. It has been documented by scientists that musicians have ‘more sensitive brains’ than people who do not play instruments or have musical experience. Factor in the often unpredictable nature of job security and finances in the industry, the slashing of arts budgets, along with the widespread availability of drugs, and it seems that both nature and nurture are factors at play in the artist’s struggle.

We can’t change nature, but we can change the way we nurture our artists. What is it about the environment of the music industry that fosters unstable mental health, and what can we do to improve this?

We talked frankly with some prominent musicians and music industry workers about mental health to see what those inside the industry are experiencing. Most of the names have been kept anonymous to protect privacy, so let’s just call them A, B, C, D, E and F!

The Music Industry reportedly has an above-average mental health issue and suicide rate than most other industries – what do you think are the primary causes?

A: I think most people that write music or care about it enough to play in a band are emotionally charged. The music industry is probably over crowded so it’s pretty easy to feel rejected or lonely. Plus most musicians have to work jobs they hate just to play music because it’s very hard to make money.
So being broke, doing something you hate and fighting to have a chance to play your music probably to an empty room can start to get to you after a while.

B: Insecure finances, poor physical health from drinking/smoking/drugs, the whole creativity/mental health link.

C: All of the above! Self-doubt and frustration in creativity, pressures of performing, burning the candle at both ends, needing to work in non-creative jobs to finance creative outlet, drugs, alcohol, perceived failure, peer pressure and enabling, parents and mainstream not supporting or encouraging musical careers (it’s not seen in general society as a ‘legitimate’ career). There are so many factors – some of us cope and seek support when we need it, some of us keep it to ourselves, bottle it up and ultimately take our own lives. We need to look after each other and our musical community, and be educated on the signs and symptoms of a person who may need help.

We should look after all artists as if they are as precious as water, shelter and life itself.

D: Stress, anxiety, drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, unhealthy food, financial struggle, lesser opportunities in the industry.

E: It’s probably not so much the primary causes but rather a significant portion of people who experience mental health issues find great outlet in the creative process, so I believe that in both our artist and our industry community we probably have above average representation.  The creative process can be a great self medicating effect for mental health issues, but the creative process can also produce incredible highs and lows that also exacerbate mental health issues.  We also have a lifestyle and culture within the music industry that probably permits high levels of other types of self medication which can often be detrimental to people managing positive mental health.  The combination of these factors, creatives, lifestyle and self medication I think go some way to explain this above average representation.  For our associated industries and workers around the creative process, the highs and lows exist in ways possibly similar to FIFO workers and I think there is possibly things we can learn from how they are beginning to address responses to their workforce needs.

Have you personally (or have people around you in the music industry) experienced any mental health issues? What were the main issues?

A: When we were on tour in America I went through some serious depression and anxiety. The anxiety was from touring nonstop with no money trying to pay bills back home and live off $3 a day. The depression came from some bad choices, but I was depressed before being in the band, so I guess lack of sleep, substance abuse and the anxiety just weighed a bit on me.

B: Yes, depression and anxiety are a constant part of my life, but are generally managed. Stress usually is the main escalator.

C: Yes. Myself and quite a few friends and acquaintances in the industry have experienced mental health issues. But these issues haven’t necessarily been caused by the industry itself; rather the environment surrounding the industry that can heighten and perpetuate the issues. I believe that people who are inherently attracted to the Arts as a practice can often be predisposed to certain mental health problems. The eccentrics, outcasts and creatives of the world find art as an outlet for expression and release and a way to make sense of the world around them.

Unfortunately the music industry in particular is set up in an environment where drugs and alcohol consumption is commonplace – even encouraged. There are a few reasons many artists and music industry workers will often succumb to drug and alcohol taking which can lead to mental health problems. Some take it for fun and then find themselves addicted, some use drugs and alcohol to cope with social environments (a lot of artists are actually introverts) and some use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, ie: relieve anxiety or to gain confidence to perform.

Other mental health issues can be accentuated by the failure to achieve one’s dreams, become successful in the industry or by the pressures of performance and the extreme highs and lows associated with performing, record company pressure, pressure from the media, exposure to the public and the financial and physical pressure of having to work a day job and gig all weekend.

From my own experience, being a musician and trying to progress creatively and financially while having to work and juggle every other aspect of life is extremely hard work and you have to have a very solid constitution. As an artist this can be a very delicate balance and can take its toll on you physically and mentally, and takes real stamina to maintain.

D: Yes, I’ve experienced metal health issues and known of other people suffering from depression. Financial stress, unhealthy diet, alcoholism, poor judgment and reckless behaviour causing mental psychosis, anxiety & depression.

E: Personally in a sense of my family experienced a long history of mental health issues with both my father and brother being bi-polar.  Whilst neither of them had a creative outlet (other than through food and fantastic letter writing) I have lived with the highs and lows, self doubt and loathing that often accompanies these mental health issues.  I have also lived with self medication as a strategy.  These experiences prepared me well for the range of artists and creatives in the music industry whom have battled mental health issues of many years.  I think the primary issues have been, finding appropriate and accessible supports and services when the window of opportunity for addressing them with honesty has arisen.  There are too few services and professionals who can deal with these issues in a quick and targeted way.

 I think some dedicated training for mental health services would also be really useful on the reality of the music industry and the creative process, as no one wants to be responsible for educating the worker who is supposed to be supporting you.  I think there are particular issues including the lifestyle for road crew, the ups and downs of the creative process, the ability to internalise failure and equate it to record sales and gigs, that are specific to our industry and need to be part of any therapeutic process. I also think the fear of medication has a particular bent for creatives because there are underlying beliefs in our industry that you write the best songs when you are feeling bad, so the idea of medication taking some of the creative forces away, or at the very least dulling them for people is a very real fear and barrier. For families and supporters of our industry understanding the impact of these issues on mental health would also be beneficial.

Did you/they seek help for this?

A: I looked to the bottle and weed. Weed helped way more than the booze. Booze made it worse.

B: Yes.

C: From what I’ve observed, some give up on music if they can’t cope or they simply burn out and quit, but quite often they will return to making music in some form as it is simply in their blood and something they just have to do. It can be really beneficial sometimes to take a break and re-assess the real reasons why they make music in the first place. Some self-medicate even more to avoid suffering, which can lead to severe medical problems and occasionally drug overdoses and suicide. Some do seek professional help. They will see a counselor or a doctor which usually leads to going to rehab, being prescribed ‘legal’ medication or making quite severe lifestyle changes. These changes can often be very confronting and difficult to adjust to if they still want to pursue a career in the music industry. Some float, some sink.

D: Yes. I was able to seek medical help and support from family. I was able to change my life around by choosing to become completely sober, kick bad habits and lead myself into an empowering lifestyle. I was able to regain control in my life.

What are your tips for music industry workers on overcoming mental health issues?

A: Be honest, tell someone and don’t try do it on your own.

B: Don’t have unrealistic ideas about what the industry can give you – disappointment with reality isn’t good for one’s mental health. Our industry is built on people’s dreams and aspirations, but these can also be unhelpful fantasies for some.

C: It’s a risky business! There are a lot of highs and lows, disappointments and triumphs. It’s just how the industry is. It’s important that people who are entering the industry are fully aware of these aspects so they are more capable of finding a balance and so they don’t crumple into a heap when things don’t work. It’s not a race. Never put too much pressure on yourself and try not to get too caught up in what you ‘think’ you should be doing in comparison to others. Music feeds the soul and is therapy in itself – focusing on the art itself and not getting caught up in all the other stuff that goes with it should be the priority for a healthy career. If the workload is too much – get a team around you to ease the load.

Never feel you have to keep up with anyone else or succumb to peer pressure when it comes to ‘partying’ or what the rest of the people in the ‘scene’ are doing. Your career will be a lot more sustainable and productive if you listen to your own body and mind and take care of yourself.*(HA! I should practise what I preach!)

D: Must have down time, healthy food, sleep is key, water, skilled management, exercise, support from family, friends, band mates, other musicians in the industry.

How can we overcome the stigma in talking openly about mental health issues?

A: Talk openly about it, set an example for others. When someone says they are depressed, don’t ignore it, support them. I don’t think that making a big deal about someone being depressed helps either, I think that if you’re going to do something fun, invite the person you know isn’t well. Sometimes just knowing that someone wants you there is enough to get through the day.

B: The more people talk openly about it, the less there will be a stigma about talking about it openly.

C: Luckily, there has been a lot more discussion on mental health and drug and alcohol addiction in the music industry lately. Organisations like Entertainment Assist are conducting surveys to find out more about this issue and find solutions, and many prominent musicians and writers in Australia are talking more openly about the issue. People are often too proud to admit they are having mental health problems, or too scared to say no to enablers who like to feed the so-called ‘romanticism’ that is attached to the industry. The more open and honest the conversations get, and the more upcoming artists and industry workers hear these conversations and participate in them, the more aware the industry will be, resulting in more information on preventative techniques and better access to help.

D: Greater support from governments and institutions. Properly funded local community driven organisations who specialise in helping youth and teaching young people about metal health issues.

E: I think the biggest tip and the biggest issue to overcome is the difficulty in talking openly.  We are better at it as a society in general but we still have a long way to go.  There are a range of organisations, like Support Act, BIGSOUND/QMusic who are talking about these issues but we need to be more open on every level about how widespread and debilitating mental health issues can be, and that ultimately whilst you feel that you are the only person feeling this way and it is your own personal deficiencies to blame the only way to overcome this cycle is to talk about it and to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel.

Additional Thoughts (F):
Music Managers are uniquely positioned when it comes to close insights and the direct impact of mental health on artists.  Particularly, where not only are the questions of the impact of mental health and associated behaviours on the individual but also on the rest of the group – often a band, often young people.  A lot more skills and capacity building in managers around facilitation, counselling and how to navigate the broader context of mental health are needed.

Experienced managers will lean on each other in times of crisis management around mental health to find ways to navigate everyone through. This is often not only the creative & professional life of the artist in crisis but also the families, the health and justice systems and the media also need to be managed. It can be intense in times of crisis.

Aside from crisis management, there are the natural patterns, behaviours of the natural ups and downs of life that the manager is often the first point of call for support, advice, coaching and life skills.It is exhausting and in my personal experience, contributes to stress levels and burn out after many, many years of supporting others through bi-polar, depression, anxiety and psychosis – let alone the external pressures in the creative & business life of the artists.
What can we do to help?
– Support legislation that offers funding to artists and music industry workers.
– Get involved with or donate to charities like Entertainment Assist, Support Act, and the ARCC (Australian Road Crew Association).
– Tell someone if you need help, and keep aware of the signs of mental illness in your peers. Have a frank and open attitude when discussing mental health with others in the industry.
If you need advice on mental health or are experiencing a crisis, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 131 114.

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