In the wake of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington’s suicide, more and more artists in the music industry have spoken out about the need to de-stigmatize mental health and provide psychological support when artists need it most. Yet little is known about the sheer magnitude of the problem, and spreading awareness is different from instigating actual change. How do we quantify the weight of mental health issues in the music industry and, more crucially, how can we move from data to action?
Help Musicians UK (HMUK), the United Kingdom’s leading independent music charity, strives to answer this question with the second installment of its mental health study Can Music Make You Sick?, which was released on Monday (Oct. 16). With over 2,200 musicians participating, the study is the largest of its kind to date, and underscores both the prevalence of mental health struggles in music and the distinct pressures that exist for all workers in the industry.
While the report’s title is provocative, it illuminates the tense, love-hate relationship between art and practice: artists may find solace and healing in the creative process, but the working conditions of forging a musical career can be much more traumatic.
In Part 1 of the study, published in November 2016, a staggering 71 percent of respondents believed they had suffered from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety, while 69 percent reported they had suffered from depression — a more than threefold increase over findings by the U.K. Office for National Statistics, which indicate around one in five of the national population suffers from anxiety or depression. Even more concerning, 57 percent of those respondents who reported struggling with mental health did not receive treatment and 53 percent reported that it was difficult to find help.
Part 2 lends a qualitative perspective to these numbers, unpacking interviews with 26 independent musicians to understand the various professional and personal pressures they face. From the psychological impact of not meeting record deal expectations, to the always-on cycles of validation and criticism on social media, to working several freelance creative jobs just to make ends meet, to merely being unable to separate oneself from one’s work, potential triggers for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues only stack up over time.
Historically, accepting such pressures as a given has been one of the biggest barriers against progress around mental health in the music industry. “I’ve heard several conversations in the past where the main concern was how to make sure artists can ‘thrive’ in a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle,” Christine Brown, director of external affairs at HMUK, tells Billboard. “While that lifestyle certainly exists, if we as an industry are endorsing that lifestyle, we clearly aren’t looking after the health and wellbeing of those working in music the way that we should.”
That being said, in HMUK’s eyes, playing the blame game is equally ineffective when it comes to instituting positive systemic change. “As an independent voice on the periphery of the industry, we’re not here to point fingers,” says Brown. “We believe we can be the catalyst for joining the dots between all these different organizations in the music industry, to build something sustainable and meaningful.”
Using the findings from Part 2 of its study, HMUK pledges to establish an industry-wide mental health task force, with the goal of bringing key stakeholders together to develop a code of best practices for mental health support within music companies. These pledges build on the charity’s ongoing Music Minds Matter campaign, which was first launched in July 2017 with the goal of building a 24/7 bespoke mental health service for musicians by year’s end.
The charity has already invested £100,000 (US $132,000) in the campaign, and claims that a matching donation from the wider public would allow the service to be sustainable beyond 2018. Matthew Leone, the bassist for rock band Madina Lake, who suffered a life-threatening injury in 2010, joined HMUK this summer as its international development executive, tasked with scoping out global partnerships in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand for expanding the upcoming service.
In the past, the music industry has had some tense encounters with mental health, either leaning on the issue as a commercial crutch or confounding exposure to information with actual change. For instance, earlier this year, British music magazine NME used Stormzy’s interview and image for their mental health cover story without the artist’s permission, drawing criticism from Stormzy and his fans.
Even well-crafted, well-meaning mental health campaigns often die down after brief spikes in press coverage, seemingly bringing the conversation back to its starting point. “A channel is not enough,” Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos, who has spoken openly about his bipolar disorder, told Billboard in an email last month. “We can do more. Listening is important. After listening should be action.”
For HMUK CEO Richard Robinson, part of transitioning from mere awareness and brand recognition to action means looking beyond the top one percent of musicians. “If you think about a Coldplay tour, there are several hundred people working behind the scenes on production alone,” Robinson tells Billboard. “They’re just as likely to suffer from fatigue, anxiety and other health issues as any member of any band, but are not given the same credence because they’re not in the top one percent of the industry that the mental health conversation seems to focus on. We’re trying to ensure that whether you are Adele or Adele’s stylist, you are given the same support.”
With its upcoming service, HMUK joins organizations like Music Support in the U.K. and Support Act in Australia that offer mental health services tailored for the music industry, including but not limited to hotlines and “safe tents” at music festivals that offer a temporary escape from crowds and chaos. Angelakos runs a mental health nonprofit called the Wishart Group that has worked with artists on donating their intellectual property and revenue streams to initiatives and groups in need of funding. The artist has led by example, having donated all royalties from the Passion Pit album Tremendous Sea of Love to the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA.