2016 has been labeled a ‘breakthrough year’ for mental health in music. The topic now frequently appears at panel discussions at conferences, as well as in academic studies. This begs the question: what can be done, and what is being done in result of all these conversations? And what causes the issue?
A look at one of the most important issues at the heart of the music business.
Can music make you sick?
A recent study by the University of Westminster for Help Musicians UK found that “musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.” Over 70% of musicians surveyed had experienced anxiety or panic attacks, and nearly 70% of respondents reported incidences of depression.
“Musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.”
– Help Musicians UK Survey
The study points out that while music may actually help people feel better, working in music did not. It suspects working conditions play a big part, as well as “the welding of music and identity into one’s own idea of selfhood (and the impact a lack of perceived success can have on this).”
How the topic of mental health rose to prominence
Last year saw a number of prominent musicians speak out about their mental health issues, acknowledging the stigma surrounding mental illness. Lady Gaga explained her PTSD diagnosis in an open letter that also takes a jab at poor working conditions:
The experience of performing night after night in mental and physical pain ingrained in me a trauma that I relive when I see or hear things that remind me of those days.
– Lady Gaga
Other well-known artists that spoke out were Zayn Malik, Kehlani, Selena Gomez, iLoveMakonnen, and Adele. In dance music, Benga openly discussing his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder helped others open up, too. Soon after, Deadmau5 discussed his depression and Carl Cox revealed his fear of burning out.
Fiona McGugan, general manager of the Music Manager’s Forum, penned a widely shared article for the Guardian about mental health in music, mentioning that for managers to protect their client’s emotional, mental and physical state should be done with as much passion as managing their business interests. Then there were pieces by David Emery and Darren Hemmings bringing attention to working conditions in the wider music business, and they didn’t mince words.
The music industry can f**k you up
Emery signals a link between the passion people have for their jobs and the general insecurity of working in music:
‘The combination of deep set industry-wide job insecurity along with an utter passion for the subject matter that we’re working on is dangerous. As in, dangerous for your health sort of dangerous.”
– David Emery, Kobalt
Both Hemmings and Emery warn of the always-on work culture that exists in the music business, with life at home and at work blending into each other. A natural result of working on something you’re passionate about, but Hemmings therefore argues that music companies have a responsibility towards their employees to let them switch off when they’re away from work.
The recurring message in all of these articles is that people should not hesitate to reach out for help when they feel they may need it. The Help Musicians UK survey found that over half of respondents didn’t know how to get help, so making help more readily available is an area of focus for many mental health initiatives.
Caring for mental health
Music Support, a charity launched in 2016, provides a 24/7 helpline that people can call when they’re having issues. While there are already organisations that provide general support, Music Support wants to connect music professionals to people who understand the unique circumstances common in the music business. “Working in venues where there are thousands of people enjoying themselves can sometimes be the loneliest place, and we have people at the end of the phone who understand that.”
More recently, Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos, honoured for his efforts in mental health awareness, founded The Wishart Group and raised $250m in funds from big names in the music & tech industries to provide artists with legal, educational and healthcare services, with particular emphasis on mental health. As of writing, the company doesn’t appear to have made any further public announcements.
Besides breaking the stigma and actually providing people who need it with care, musicians and researchers often warn that people tend to romanticise mental illness. Audiences like to think of artists as tortured geniuses and there’s a belief that mental issues are good for creativity. This belief is one of the most commonly cited reasons why the music industry doesn’t take better care of their artists’ emotional well-being. It’s considered par for the course for artists, but do you perform best at your profession when you feel stressed, burned out, or depressed?
As Darren Hemmings put it at a recent conference panel: “Stress and creativity don’t go hand-in-hand.”