Mind Games: Tackling The Stigma of Mental Health Within The Music Industry

The music industry doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with mental health. But now, all that seems to be changing. Our long-read from Issue One of HISKIND looks at how the industry is challenging the stigmas and helping the artists.

Mental health has never been a palatable topic. UK charity MIND found that one in four Brits will experience a problem with mental health each year, and although it seems that now there is certainly more awareness, a fifth of us still believe that it’s all simply down to “a lack of self-discipline and willpower.” Combine this, for example, with cuts of 8% to mental health services during David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister and you can understand that the scars of mental health and its understanding run deep.

This stigma can be seen throughout the music industry. Remember the social media reaction to Kanye West’s 2016 hospitalisation for exhaustion? It would appear that an artist who shows signs of struggling with a mental health condition finds themselves a victim of meme culture (2007 Britney/Sinead O’Connor’s disappearances) or romanticised to make their illness some form of a twisted trend (Kurt Cobain/Ian Curtis).

But now, the music industry is taking the conversation about mental health seriously. Olly Alexander, for example, of pop favourites Years & Years has opened up about his struggles with depression, and R&B star Kehlani publicly discussing her suicide attempts.

Last year, Help Musicians UK launched Can Music Make You Sick?, the first industry-wide academic study into music and mental health, surveying over 2,000 from a variety of fields across the music industry. With 70% admitting to anxiety and panic attacks and a further 68% reporting they had suffered from depression, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why it’s taken so long for this form of research to take place.

Musician and entrepreneur Scott Quinn is the man behind the Music And Depression (MAD) campaign. “I wanted to speak up and start a proper, raw discussion about mental health,” he explains. “The name is controversial and I love that. I believe we can take the energy of the word, turn it on itself and use it for good, ultimately quashing the stigma.”

A musician himself, he’s fully aware of the implications of a career within the industry, especially in regards to mental stability. “Mental health has always been a prevalent topic within the industry, it is the basis for which a lot of songwriting begins. But I feel that mental health has long been stigmatised and brushed under the carpet.

“For far too long, the industry glamourised this rock’n’roll lifestyle that was fuelled by sex, drugs and money. It’s only now that we’re seeing a shift from this. The lifestyle was a means to cope with the mental health problems that affected artists and industry in that time, but was never openly discussed or addressed.”

Someone not unfamiliar with the effects of said-lifestyle is Clare Maguire. Six years ago, she landed herself a top five placement on the BBC Sound Of poll, a hefty label advance and dream major label deal. Following her debut, Maguire was let go from her contract because of lacklustre sales, before falling into alcohol addiction. She eventually admitted herself in rehab. A few days prior, a doctor told her she’d be dead within the month if she didn’t stop.

Her comeback record, Stranger Things Have Happened, was arguably a crucial album in terms of an artist divulging their struggles with mental health. “As with everything in this industry, I did it alone, went through it alone, dealt with it alone and got on with it alone,” she explains. “I feel positive about that now. It’s made me a very strong person.”

It’s an album that breaks the stigma of mental health through its pure honesty. “My producer let himself into my house, found me lying in bed and just recorded me singing,” Maguire confesses. “Here I am / here I stand / on my own / another lessons learned,” she sings on Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s surprising to realise that mental health problems can progress to this stage, especially in an industry so tightly knit with contacts and working relationships. As Quinn explains, “When it comes down to it, the real issue is ignorance and misinformation, bad habits and fear. Education and awareness is the answer.”

With Maguire still in her twenties, she is part of the wave of young musicians speaking about mental health issues. “We are part of a great generation where young people are becoming much more honest and open about their experiences,” she notes. “They are encouraged to speak out online. Therefore, more people in the entertainment industry are speaking up because they are being asked.”

The demand to succeed with lengthy, established careers is greater than it’s ever been, with labels and managements bearing the increasing importance of their clients’ health and mental well-being. It’s often the artist’s bandmates that are first to respond to the deterioration of an artist’s mental health. Going it alone can only remove this first-hand connection and interaction.

“The music industry is itself bipolar in nature. Some days you’re hot property and everyone wants a slice and the next day you’re sending out streams of emails with no replies,” Quinn points out. “This constant rollercoaster ride can cause real anxiety and this is only magnified by the fact that the commodity that the industry is built upon is such a personal product from the artist that is producing it.”

New Zealand artist Madeira knows this first hand, having to leave her original founding three-piece to start back at square one as a solo act. “I was kicked out and made to start all over again, without any acknowledgement of what I’d gone through or what just happened, and that took a huge toll on me mentally,” she explains.

“My career was slipping through my fingers quicker than I could recover, it was being taken from me, and that’s a horrible place to be in. I’m fortunate to have a very strong spirit though, and refuse to give up on things I want,” she asserts. “For an entire year, I was a mess, I couldn’t do much more than grieve.”

It’s well known that a career in music isn’t the most consistent of lifestyles. MAD research, however, found that 52.7% of those asked found it difficult to seek any form of help. “The hardest thing now is maintaining my mental strength despite such a tricky lifestyle,” she elaborates. “Everything you learn in therapy is about consistency and regular routines – being a musician is anything but, and it’s about learning to find moments of consistency in the chaos.”

A 2016 BBC survey found that around a fifth of the UK population believe they have relationship difficulties; that figure triples when looking at people in the music industry. Madeira points out: “I can see why so many artists self-medicate, why so many of their relationships implode, why many are bitterly lonely and some choose to end their lives.”

In the age of the DIY artist and going it alone, Madeira seems like the ideal person to ask why it’s taken so long to discuss mental health within music. “A work of art, like a song, can be like your own child, and to have someone tell you to your face that it’s ugly just doesn’t happen with other everyday jobs,” she tells. “I think there is always room for more support in mental health regardless of which profession anyone is in. It needs to be more than a buzz topic every year or two.”

It becomes important to consider other roles within the industry if we’re to address the situation seriously. Pip Williams is Pop Editor for new music haven The Line of Best Fit, explaining: “People don’t want to know that their idols have to pop pills every day just to do their jobs, particularly in pop music. It’s not been seen as a cool or fun topic to broach.”

A sobering 70% of those within the music business said they had suffered from anxiety at a time within their career. For journalism in general, workload, little-to-no pay and stress have all been suggested as factors as to why mental illness seems to be highest in the creative industries. “I’m very lucky to have a community of writer friends with whom I can talk about these things,” concludes Williams.

This change within music journalism doesn’t appear to be going unnoticed by musicians either. “It’s not just the tabloid avenue of ‘let’s tear them down and ridicule them for being depressed,’” explains Maguire. “Even though that’s still very much there, there is another conversation happening online with people who understand and are sympathetic.”

Help Musicians UK, the leading independent charity for professional musicians, are behind the MAD campaign. Chairman Richard Robinson explains, “By having those conversations and encouraging more musicians to speak openly about their mental health, we can begin to chip away at that stigma so that those working in the industry do not need to suffer in silence.”

“We need to have these conversations because the music industry has a significant problem with mental wellbeing,” he elaborates. “We need to talk about why working in the music industry is harmful to one’s mental health and how we can look to reform its working conditions.”

The MAD campaign is arguably some of the most vital research seen within the music industry, so how do we go about making sure the conversation is upheld and can continue through 2017 and further? “It has provided a vital first step in helping us to establish the scale of this problem as well as provide a massive wake-up call to the music industry,” states Robinson.

“It makes the topic of mental health in the music industry very hard to ignore. It’s time for the industry to put its money where its mouth is, the world is watching now and they’re expecting more than just a few PR friendly responses and good will gestures. It’s time for real change and it’s coming.”

“The survey is just the first step in a long campaign. In phases two and three of the study, the University of Westminster will be digging into these issues in much greater detail before providing us with recommendations for launching the first music industry specific mental health service.”

Other charities, too, are taking another huge step in the right direction. Music Support offers confidential help and foothold for those in the UK music business whilst over in New Zealand, the NZ Music Foundation offers free advice, counselling and hardship grants to artists. A further step forward would be to see this brand cross to the rest of the creative industry, given such surveys just hadn’t occurred in other creative fields yet.

The music industry is taking mental health seriously, and these surveys and campaigns go a long way in combatting stigma surrounding mental health. But we also need to be taking action in our lives – both to deal with mental health as an issue, build awareness and understanding, and to combat the remaining stigma. “Conversation is important. It gives hope for change for a brighter future,” concludes Clare Maguire. “Talk, learn and try to understand. Never stop.”

If there’s something on your mind and you want to get it off your chest, there are phone lines and websites where you can find help.


Sane: 0300 304 7000

Samaritans: 0207 734 2800

Rethink: 0300 500 0927


Calm: www.thecalmzone.net

Mind: www.mind.org.uk

Men’s Health Forum: www.menshealthforum.org.uk

Help Musicians UK: www.helpmusicians.org.uk

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