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Why are musicians more likely to suffer mental health issues?

@SamWKemp

Back in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic laid everything bare, Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten called for more mental health support for musicians working in the industry. His argument centred on a simple and prescient observation: the music industry does not care for its artists.

Discussing the band’s hectic work schedule after they achieved critical success with their 2019 debut Dogrel, Chatten opened up about the strain touring bands are expected to endure: “It’s dangerous, you know, even without the drugs,” he said in a new interview with Music Week. “The big killer for us was a lack of sleep. We’d have a flight in between gigs as our allocated sleep time. So that was rough and made us very bitter about the whole thing, and we started to see each other and everyone we worked with as the devil.”

More often than not, musicians’ mental health problems are blamed on some deep-rooted melancholy. Their craft, we are told, is a form of catharsis, tortured artists attempting to overcome their demons. This romantic rhetoric has been with us from the days of classical composers like Schumann and Marler to the eras of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

Arguably, it is a myth that has allowed the music industry to deny culpability and blame the ubiquity of mental health issues on the musicians themselves. But according to a recent study, musicians are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety not because the arts attract melancholics but because of things like antisocial working hours, lack of support from people in positions of authority, and time away from home.

According to a 2016 study commissioned by Help Musicians, musicians suffer from anxiety and depression in huge numbers irrespective of genre.71.1% of all respondents admitted to having suffered panic attacks and high levels of depression, while 68.5% said they had suffered from depression. The preliminary report was careful to note that, while music was found to have therapeutic benefits, “working in, or having ambitions to work in, the music industry, might indeed be making musicians sick”

So, what is it about a career in the music industry that negatively impacts musicians’ mental health? Well, according to a recent study of people working in the performing arts, precisely what Grian Chatten observed: disruption to sleep or inconsistent sleep routines, antisocial work hours, and financial pressures. “The inconsistency of touring and pressures of time travelling, erratic working schedules (including evenings and weekend performance) and chunks of time working away mean a lack of time for loved ones, family or social life,” says the study. “Musicians, for example, spoke of going months without seeing their children. This is important since support from loved ones is known to be one of the most significant protective factors for mental health.”

For Chatten, the music industry was a place he and his bandmates were left to navigate entirely without support – unless you count the advice of bands who had already been through the same struggles. “It wasn’t even the rise of the band that was head-spinning,” Chatten said. “It was the pace and the relentlessness of it. I really did feel like we were put into a chamber that spins around and you come out the other side.”

All of this begs the question: what can the music industry do to improve? Since the Covid-19 pandemic, some positive steps have been taken, such as the launch of Music Minds Matter, a new mental health platform dedicated to the mental health of working musicians.

Joe Hastings, the platform’s founder, explained: “We set up Music Minds Matter on the back of research that we did about four or five years ago now, which showed that musicians and people in the industry were experiencing high levels of mental health issues, predominantly depression and anxiety. And what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the pandemic, is looking at how we can ensure that the service grows and is able to offer people what they need. And obviously, that’s changed a lot over the last two years.”

Platforms such as Music Minds Matter offer an essential lifeline to individuals suffering from depression and other mental health issues. However, the industry still has a way to ensure those in positions of authority are looking after their performers. Rolling Stone recently published an article detailing the final days of late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Several of Hawkins’ friends and colleagues were interviewed, with some claiming that he expressed hesitation and discomfort about the band’s demanding tour schedule.

According to Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, Hawkins raised his concerns with Dave Grohl before his death. “He had a heart-to-heart with Dave and, yeah, he told me that he ‘couldn’t fucking do it anymore’—those were his words. So I guess they did come to some understanding, but it just seems like the touring schedule got even crazier after that.” A Foo Fighters representative told Rolling Stone that Hawkins didn’t raise the issue, arguing that there was “never a ‘heart-to-heart’—or any sort of meeting on this topic—with Dave and [Silva Artist Management].” It’s important to note that Hawkins’ cause of death has not been revealed. Still, if his friend’s claims are found to be correct, it would appear the drummer wasn’t receiving the necessary support from those with the power to help.

At the moment, it falls on the performers themselves to mitigate the negative effects of the industry. But what if there was a more pre-emptive approach? What if we attempted to build a healthier music industry from the inside out, one with good mental health at the heart of everything it does? Only time will tell if the industry is ready to accept responsibility for the heath of the people it relies upon to function.