Music is Good For the Soul, But Our Musicians Are Struggling

The first week of October each year is Mental Illness Awareness Week. It is a time dedicated to advocating for better mental health care, spreading awareness about the widespread prevalence of mental illness, and fighting the stigma that is often associated with mental health. Despite how far-reaching mental illness is, people who suffer are often met with misunderstanding and a lack of adequate mental health care.

Musicians are no exception to suffering from mental illness. It is no secret that living the life of an artist can be challenging, but if music is supposed to be good for the soul, why do so many musicians struggle with mental illness? After all, music has the ability to calm the mind and allow people to relate to circumstances that they are going through. Many people also promote the healing effects of music therapy for behavioral health. If music is really that good for health, musicians should be some of the healthiest individuals on the planet. However, this misconception couldn’t be more wrong. 

The 73 Percent Report

The Record Union conducted a survey of 1,500 independent musicians asking them about their mental health. Unfortunately, the results were staggering. The study found that 73% of independent musicians claimed to have experienced difficulties with their mental health - including stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, 33% claimed to have experienced panic attacks and 69% suffer from depression. 

Although the numbers of musicians who struggle with mental illness are devastating, only 39% sought treatment for their symptoms. Similarly, only 33% of struggling musicians aged 18-25 sought mental health care. On the other hand, 50% claimed that they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

These numbers are substantially higher among musicians than they are among the general population. The National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018. In conclusion, musicians are far more likely to suffer from mental illness than the general population. This poses the question: If music is commonly used as a form of holistic therapy, and is so good for the soul, why are so many musicians suffering?

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Musicians and Mental Illness

Many well-known artists have also spoken up about how mental illness has affected them. One of them, who is constantly in the media, is Demi Lovato. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011 and has struggled with substance abuse as well. Unfortunately, co-occurring mental illness and addiction are not uncommon. After all, people who suffer from mental illness are twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse, and nearly 50% of people with a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness. In fact, we hear about co-occurring disorders among musicians all the time, from Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Mac Miller, just to name a few. 

While many artists struggle with it, sometimes to death, others use it as a method of empowerment. Take Kanye West, for example. He claims that his mental health condition is more like a superpower- it fuels his creativity. In addition, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, and J. Cole have also openly spoken up about having depression. Instead of fighting it or letting their mental health silence them, they speak out to encourage others to share their experiences with one another. Regardless of how musicians deal with their mental illness, the list of artists who struggle with their mental health is endless. 

Culture Shock

If you’ve ever moved to a new country, or from a big city to a small town, you are familiar with the term culture shock. It refers to a feeling of disorientation someone experiences when he or she is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar way of life, culture, or attitudes. Culture shock can occur as a musician takes a leap into the spotlight. Between the stress of trying to get a big break in the industry, the constant criticism from producers, crowds, and media alike, the anxiety of performing, and the overwhelming fans that refuse to back off, it is no wonder that problems with mental health can take a serious toll on the well being of artists. 

The music industry is brutal, and many will spend years making the effort to achieve their dreams just to be told they aren’t good enough. Negative emotions can trigger self-doubt, depression, and even poor decision making. 

On the other hand, there are the ones who finally break through the industry into the spotlight. First, there are the media, following, dissecting, and often criticizing every decision made by artists. While there is plenty of good publicity, it is way more common to see bad publicity arise when a star is less than perfect. The media and the fans sometimes idolize the stars, dehumanizing them and expecting them to behave impeccably. These ideas put a lot of pressure on celebrities.

On top of the media and overwhelming fans, there also comes the pressure of performing. When performing, the stress response is heightened, provoking a fight or flight response that leads to increased awareness and adrenaline levels. Sometimes, this makes for better performances. For others, however, prolonged stress can lead to panic attacks and long-term anxiety. 

The combination of stress, lack of privacy, and pressure that comes from being a famous artist can lead many to self-medicate or neglect seeking appropriate treatment to care for their mental health. It is clear that the climate of the music industry can be toxic for some, so what can be done to improve it?

Something Needs to Change

Any great change takes time. The media isn’t going to stop condemning mental breakdowns of artists any time soon. Fans aren’t going to stop idolizing stars just because we tell them to, and artists are always going to face pressure before putting on a performance. The good news is that some artists are speaking up about mental health. More and more people are beginning to show compassion for mental health rather than judgment. 

Johan Svanberg, CEO of Record Union, stated after publishing the 73 percent study, “It’s time to put the state of our artists’ mental health on the agenda, before streams and commercial success.” After all, the music industry is well aware of the toll that fame, fortune, and rejection alike takes on the mental health of artists. 

Instead of treating artists as a money-making product, they should be recognized as human beings who have feelings and needs. Record producers and managers should implement regular mental health checkups and take action to prioritize the mental health and well-being of their musicians. 

Similarly, fans and the general population should start speaking up about mental health, too. It is crucial to learn more about mental illness and how symptoms may appear in order to gain an understanding of what others may be going through. Most importantly, allow yourself to see the person, rather than the illness. Share your own story about your struggles with mental illness and how you have found healthy ways of coping. The more it is spoken about with compassion and understanding, the more awareness can be spread. Fighting the stigma of mental illness is essential to encouraging people who are suffering to get the help they need. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, reach out. You can call 1-800-622-HELP to speak with someone immediately. Learn more about this hotline here.

Additionally, if you’re one of our Colorado readers, consider joining the Mental Wellness Meetup and check out this Colorado Crisis Services website too.