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Musicians and Mental Illness: What is Being Done to Help

Musicians suffer more mental ill health than the general population, yet their lifestyles make them harder to support. The industry is now taking action to combat mental illness in musicians.

Last updated: 25 March 2022

From Mahler and Schumann to Cobain and Winehouse, there has long been a romanticised connection between musical talent and mental health problems. But while popular culture idolises the idea of the ‘tortured genius’, the truth is more insidious. Not only are we losing talented artists to suicide and overdoses, but the lives of many more musicians are being made miserable by anxiety, depression, addiction and other psychiatric conditions.

The issue first started to get serious attention back in 2016, when the charity Help Musicians noticed a 22% rise in the number of people coming to them seeking help for mental health crises. The charity commissioned a survey of more than 2,000 self-identified professional musicians across the UK music industry, carried out by researchers at the University of Westminster. The results showed that seven out of ten had suffered anxiety and panic attacks, while two thirds had experienced depression – three times more than the general population. Yet more than half of the respondents said that they had found it difficult to get help. The message was stark: mental illness among musicians is an enormous problem.

“This was the first academic study on the incidence of mental health and musicians in the UK,” says the report’s lead author Sally-Anne Gross, a former music manager who is now principal lecturer in music business management at Westminster.

“It didn’t matter where people were, what genre they came from or what part of the business they were in, they all said the same thing – they all loved making music but trying to build a career in music was crushing them. It really felt like we were talking to a lot of people who were very anxious.”

How irregular working patterns impacts on mental ill-health

A 2019 study by Swedish digital platform Record Union produced similarly worrying results. The survey concluded that 73% of independent musicians struggle with mental illness. This figure climbed to 80% when researchers focused solely on the 18-25 age group.

Money worries have been highlighted as one of the major causes of musicians’ mental distress, coupled with the unpredictable nature of their work. This can be particularly acute when people feel they are financially reliant on family or partners, leading to feelings of guilt for pursuing music rather than getting a ‘proper job’. Irregular working patterns and late nights were also an issue, impacting on family life, relationships and friendships. Many musicians were also working several jobs in order to stay afloat financially, often without breaks, leading to mental and physical burn-out.

From stage fright to sexual harassment

Other problems include performance anxiety (‘stage fright’), which can come on suddenly and affect even the most confident performers. Discrimination, bullying and coercion also cause significant mental distress, especially in those who are already psychologically vulnerable, and women in particular highlighted the widespread negative impact of sexism and sexual harassment in the music industry. More fundamentally, the University of Westminster survey revealed a deep vein of unhappiness at the core of many musicians’ very selves.

“Music is embodied in your sense of self – it’s a really deep belief in something that is helping you to construct yourself as a living, breathing subject and without which you feel unable to continue,” explains Gross. “But if you’ve invested a huge amount of time and effort into practising, writing and performing but things aren’t happening for you, then the disappointment can be immense.”

It’s a view echoed by Christine Brown, director of external affairs at Help Musicians: “Music has a powerful and positive impact on people, but the environment around them can make them very unhappy. It’s a precarious industry with a lot of anxiety about irregular income and working hours. There are the highs of performing and the lows of coming off stage, and the stresses of touring and travel, as well as the impact of alcohol and drugs.”

How touring takes its toll

While it may be the dream of many musicians to tour the world, whether in a band, as a solo artist or as part of an orchestra, life on the road brings its own issues that can have a dramatic impact on mental health.

“It might seem like you’re living the dream, but it can be absolutely miserable,” says Diane Widdison, the Musicians’ Union National Organiser for Education and Training. “You can end up eating badly, having no time for exercise or self care and sleeping badly in poor accommodation or on a tour bus. A gruelling schedule might be quite exciting when you start out as a new conservatoire graduate, but 20 years down the line it’s going to be a drain on your physical as well as your mental health.”

Feeling drained and devalued

It’s a story that sounds all too familiar to Clive*, a bassist who toured extensively with an indie rock band in the early 90s. Touring took its toll on him and Clive spiralled into depression when the band finally broke up after a few years on the road.

“I think I went through as many mental states as there are states in America,” he laughs. “There’s the high of being on stage, but the reality is mostly quite tedious – you’re setting up all your gear, killing time before the gig, then packing it back down and getting back in the van, only to do it all again the next day. You think it should be like a constant road movie but it’s a long time to be spending with the same people, even if they are your friends.”

Away from pubs and clubs, life in the concert hall brings its own set of pressures. Evie*, an orchestral brass player and music teacher living in London, realised that she was suffering from anxiety and depression around four years ago when she had a series of breakdowns.

“A lot of it was to do with feeling that I wasn’t getting any work or that I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “I was being asked to do things for free or derisory fees, which made me feel very devalued and triggered a lot of self-worth issues.”

Where to find help

Evie eventually sought help from her GP and was referred for counselling but found it difficult to make it work alongside the demands of her life as a working musician.

“They didn’t really understand my line of work,” she says. “I finally got a counsellor

I was happy to talk to, but then I had to go on tour for seven weeks so they just dismissed me. I felt I was let down, because they simply didn’t understand that you can’t just put everything on hold if you’ve got concerts you’re getting paid for, or teaching you can’t rearrange.”

Recognising the need to provide a service that caters to the unique needs and challenges faced by people working in music, Help Musicians launched Music Minds Matter in December 2017. More than just a Freephone helpline, it’s a comprehensive mental health support service providing advice, information, resources, and professional and clinical services for musicians in need of help.

Confidential counselling

The service is completely confidential and staffed by trained volunteers who all understand the unique challenges and pressures faced by people working in music. Importantly for a profession where many people struggle financially, the counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy is free for all UK-based musicians who make more than half their income from music and have less than £16,000 in savings – best of all, it usually starts within a week.

“I truly think we have been able to save lives.” says Brown. “Obviously we completely support the NHS mental health services, but they are very stretched. We can offer free counselling face to face or on the phone, and we can provide therapy online or in person, in a timely way that bypasses the long NHS waiting lists.”

Specialist support for musicians

Another source of help is Music Support, which was started in 2016 by a group of music industry veterans who felt that more needed to be done, particularly in the area of drug addiction and alcoholism. Music Support runs a 24/7 phone and email helpline staffed by volunteers with personal experience of the music business and the issues at stake. It also offers crisis support for urgent psychiatric or addiction situations, and training on mental health, resilience and addiction. One of the founders is Samantha Parker, a former artist manager who has had her own struggles with addiction and mental health problems.

“I was always very aware as a manager that there was a lot of unhealthy behaviour that I too was participating in,” she says. “The most important thing was doing whatever it took to keep an artist happy, but that wasn’t always in the best interests of the artist and the people working with them.”

Spotting the signs of alcohol addiction

By far the most prevalent drug across the music industry is alcohol: 90% of respondents in the University of Westminster survey said they drank, with more than half drinking regularly or heavily, while one in ten said they used recreational drugs weekly or daily. Backstage booze is commonly provided by promoters, sometimes in lieu of payment, which does little to help those who struggle.

“I think there should be more education for everyone in the industry so that they understand about addiction,” says Parker. “It’s a disease of mind, body and spirit that can kill you if it’s not dealt with, so we need to train people to spot the signs earlier, so that people who aren’t well are able to access treatment, not just saying ‘shape up or ship out’.”

Clare Scivier, founder of the musicians’ wellbeing charity Your Green Room, is deeply concerned about what she sees as a trend of exploiting mental ill health and addiction to sell records, particularly in the electronic dance and rap scenes.

Exploiting mental health problems

“What’s worrying me is the exploitation of young men in Trap and Drill music who are being encouraged to behave in ways that exploit their mental health problems,” she says. “Those posts are sponsored by record labels, although they deny any responsibility for these deaths,” she points out. “If you’re aware that someone has mental health problems, then should they be exploited on a public platform like that for commercial gain? You wouldn’t invest millions of pounds in a drug addict with serious mental health issues in any other business, and the labels are ignoring incredibly talented and gifted young kids who are working hard and want to get on, in favour of people with serious problems.”

Putting mental health on the music industry’s agenda

Initiatives such as Music Minds Matter and Music Support are starting to put mental health firmly on the music industry’s agenda.

“We want to bring in a code of best practice across the sector that promotes kindness, tolerance and an understanding of the impact that the music industry can have on the wellbeing of the people working in it,” says Christine Brown. “We also want to help people recognise the signs of emotional suffering in themselves and others and know where to get help, and lastly we want to educate people more broadly about how to relax and look after their physical and mental health.”

“It’s easy to lay the blame on the record labels – they’re businesses, not baby-sitters – but there is a duty of care for the whole industry to be more supportive,” says Music Support’s Samantha Parker. “Music is incredibly important as an art form and musicians are our greatest cultural assets, so we need to take care of them. Getting out the message that it’s okay to not be okay is really important.”

//* Names have been changes for privacy//