Music is a saviour for many of us—sharing our emotions, picking us up when we’re down, mirroring our thoughts in times of despair. At its core, music is an artistic statement, reflecting both the good and the bad in society. As musicians channel emotions so intensely, they lose a part of themselves in the process, leaving them vulnerable and susceptible.
The common misconception is that it’s all fame, wealth, and good fortune for popular musicians. The facts, however, suggest otherwise—particularly in the fragile age of streaming. Often, the art comes at a little-known cost.
Earlier this year, a study by Victoria Bamber showed that, on average, 80% of musicians suffer from anxiety, stress, and depression on a daily basis. To put this in context, the World Health Organisation states that 450 million people are affected by a mental health issue today. Furthermore, one in four will suffer from a mental health issue in their lifetime. In the music industry, it seems like the list of tragic losses grows longer each month. Even within the last few days Dua Lipa has called for better healthcare within the industry.
In the weeks leading up to Mental Health Awareness Day 2019, I asked artists about mental health and music. Why do so many to fall into an abyss of depression? More importantly, how do they cope and what needs to change? The general public might be far removed from the music industry, but mental illness happens in all walks of life. When we share and speak out, it removes the power of stigma.
New York singer-songwriter.
“The kind of vulnerability it takes to be a musician/artist can make it hard for us to stand up for ourselves or tell the world about our accomplishments. We expect or hope that we’ll eventually have somebody else—agent, manager, label—do the shouting for us. To take care of the more mundane aspects of a career ourselves can feel like a shameful thing. I wish it wasn’t like that, that I could be proud of ANY hard work I do to get work out into the world and not feel like if I was really good, I could just focus on the elevated ‘art’ part that really matters. It’s all creativity and it all matters.”
Vocalist & bass player with The Membranes.
“Ironically, whilst music has the power to mend a broken heart, create a community for outsiders, embrace lost souls and empower the scared it is often delivered by sensitive souls who break their own hearts and their own fragile minds doing it—we need to take care of the artist before they crash and burn through self medication or mental exhaustion or emotional vulnerability…’
Bass player with The Damned.
“I’d say most musos, as are a fair few painters and scientists (basically creative types with not an abundance of common sense), are a bit nuts before they join their chosen professions. Trust me, I’ve not met many good songwriters who haven’t had the odd screw loose.”
Vanessa Briscoe Hay
Musician & songwriter with Pylon, Supercluster & PRS.
“It is difficult for me to sort out whether there are a larger number of those who have some sort of mental health issue in the music/arts community than there are in the community at large. But, when someone takes their life and they are someone we all ‘know’, it is a heavy blow. We are all aware almost simultaneously due to social media and the news.
Mental Illness is a disease that strikes seemingly without regard to social barriers, age, sexual orientation, or occupation.
I will share these insights:
1. You cannot usually tell by looking at someone that they are struggling. If you know that someone is struggling and feel that they may be suicidal. Get advice and help from a professional. Most of us, including me, do not have the proper tools in their kit to deal with such an enormous problem. It can be exhausting and overwhelming for their close family and friends.
2. Don’t be afraid to get counselling yourself. It doesn’t mean you are crazy. Think of it as a tune-up. If you broke your leg, you would get it taken care of, wouldn’t you?
3. Mental Health needs more funding.”
Singer-songwriter, formerly of Strawberry Switchblade.
“The question should be if you don’t have a mental health issue in this society you must be mad. Musicians need an outlet to exorcise their demons—that’s my therapy.”
Sushil K. Dade
Better known as Future Pilot A.K.A.
“Many musicians working in the industry are dealing with a variety of complex issues and the root of the problem is not simply the industry itself but wider social and cultural issues and pressures on artists themselves. These may simply be monetary, or issues of self-esteem/self confidence, to name just a few. In short, we need to take care of each other more and the industry has a responsibility to look out and support the well-being of artists and performers who are dealing with the ever increasing pressures of the industry in the times. World Mental Health Day is a perfect moment to reflect on these issues and to offer an open hand and come together to provide a collective support network for each other.”
Singer-songwriter, Throwing Muses frontwoman.
“I kept it (condition) a secret until some writers found out I’d just been released from the hospital and I’ve been backpedalling ever since. Now I know that I had no mood disorder or mental illness of any kind. I was cured of my PTSD and my dissociative personalities were integrated. I actually wrote a book about being misdiagnosed bipolar (Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing) and became a kind of spokesperson for bipolar disorder. So clearly, people want something to be going on with others’ mental states…maybe as a kind of wide net support group? And that’s fair. Just kind of sad.”
John Andrew Fredrick
Lead singer/guitarist with The Black Watch.
“I don’t think too many artists are terribly well-balanced people to begin with. That’s perhaps why you sometimes overhear poseurs ‘pretending’ to say really weird things in order to come off as strange or unhinged. The constant quest to stay on top of the ever-new factors into it as well, I believe. If you let it get to you, there’s unrelenting pressure to produce, produce, produce and then have it subjected to the criticisms of know-nothings and know-alls, an appalling—to some—situation. Heaps of people are… not well, let’s say—and they may not even know it. It’s sort of a reflection of the times? Which Freud always maintained anyway, you know? The idea that, in sick societies like ours, the artists sort of felt the effects of things first—things that the general public only ‘caught’ (in both senses of the term) later.”
Jo Beth Young
Better known as RISE.
“I think there are three aspects to this. One the very nature of making music is to open oneself up, to be vulnerable in public and to be transparent in your art. Musicians are channels for the ‘muse’ and you have to be sensitive to do that, open wide to everything to do that.
The nature of the music ‘industry’ is not adept at coping with this because its very job is to extract as much as it can from the artist for profit and business. Musicians can feel generally under appreciated or badly rewarded for their work. We as a culture in our part of the world do not value the work of the musician as an important role in society but more of an extravagance. It’s the iceberg effect, where we see so little of what actually goes into making music. Good music always requires one to dig deep into one’s own psyche without judgement or filter and find the gold in there… it’s deeply personal by nature.”
Singer-songwriter with Where We Sleep.
“I see it as a bit of a spiral effect, the issue of mental health in the music industry. People who are drawn to the arts often have struggles with their mental health already and the music industry isn’t always a healthy place for them to be operating (or trying to operate). It’s a double-edged sword—on the one hand, trying to exist in the music industry brings its own pressures and exploitation to a group of people who are already prone to depression, addiction and so many other conditions.
But on the other, making music is the outlet (or in some cases, I guess, the distraction)—a medicine—for deep-rooted struggles. Unfortunately, art and mental health issues are often entwined and always have been. An industry which has only recently begun to acknowledge how widespread the problem is has a long way to go to learning how to balance commercial value and human value.”
Above all, the issues relayed here resonate with a clear message—the need for support networks within the industry. In some respects, the same commentary can be applied to society in general. Only with empathy, understanding, and the right structures in place, can we tackle the widespread mental health issues affecting us all.
As a thank you to those who contributed, here’s a playlist of their music to remind us of the importance of their art.