Musics Battle Against Mental Health Crisis

‘Don’t Let Our Artists Perish’
The Music Industry’s Battle Against the Mental Health Crisis
Musicians are grappling with addiction and mental health challenges at an unsettling pace. Yet, as a fresh wave of initiatives and organizations emerges to extend assistance, the music industry is responding more vigorously than ever before.


In 2009, Anders Osborne faced a profound downfall. He was in financial ruin, his home was on the verge of foreclosure, his marriage had ended, and he was estranged from his children. His source of income came from gigs, but his struggles with alcohol and drugs often left him unable to perform. “For almost a year, I either tried to find a friend’s couch or lived in the park,” recalls Osborne, a singer-songwriter from New Orleans known for collaborations with artists like Phil Lesh and Tim McGraw. “I wrecked everything.”
Osborne, then 42, was in the midst of an eight-year battle with substance abuse and mental health issues, which resulted in psychotic episodes and hallucinations. These struggles intertwined with bipolar tendencies, leading to erratic behavior and long periods of sleeplessness. “My addiction fueled my bipolar tendencies,” he explains. “I’d undergo dramatic shifts in a matter of hours, and suddenly, I’d find myself hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere.”
Osborne’s story is sadly not unique. Every era has its share of musicians, from Charlie Parker and Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, who grapple with addiction and mental health challenges. (These two issues are often intertwined; around half of individuals with mental illness also experience substance abuse.)
Recently, the extent of this issue has become even clearer. A study by the Music Industry Research Association in 2018 revealed that 50 percent of musicians reported battling depression symptoms, compared to less than 25 percent of the general adult population. As album sales decline and streaming revenue is primarily claimed by record labels and digital distributors, artists are left with little choice but to tour extensively.
Everyone in the industry — artists, crew and business team have become commodities. People are working much harder to maintain their positions and the pressure is intense. In addition to financial instability, this gig-focused economy brings forth various stressors: isolation, exposure to drugs and alcohol, strained relationships, disrupted sleep and eating routines, and inadequate access to quality healthcare. “Modern creatives in the industry face greater challenges due to the instability of their routines,” explains Dr. Chayim Newman, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist specializing in performers and touring artists. “The demanding hours on the road or in the studio make it difficult to maintain healthy routines.” This turmoil can lead to a perfect storm for a breakdown, as Osborne describes it.
While top-tier musicians aren’t immune to these struggles, they tend to face them less severely, particularly when it comes to financial and healthcare challenges. “For every artist in the spotlight, there are 10 to 100 behind-the-scenes crew members who are essential to performances, tours, and albums,” notes Newman. “These crew members experience the same burnout as the artists.”
There could even be neurological factors contributing to artists’ mental health issues. “The parts of the brain controlling negative emotions are often more active in the right hemisphere,” Newman explains. This means that “right-brained” individuals like artists, who are in tune with their feelings, might be predisposed to experiencing more negative emotions.
Furthermore, performing can disrupt an artist’s physiological systems. “The rush and pressure of the stage push artists into a heightened sympathetic activation mode,” Newman says. This state is akin to a panic state, but it’s induced by voluntary circumstances.
In recent years, these issues have manifested tragically. In 2019 alone, musicians like David Berman of Silver Jews, guitarist Neal Casal, Yonder Mountain String Band founder Jeff Austin, and Prodigy singer Keith Flint died by suicide. In the preceding two years, rapper Mac Miller died of an accidental drug overdose, while Avicii, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park all died by suicide.
Nearly one billion people worldwide suffer from some form of mental disorder, according to latest UN data – a staggering figure that is even more worrying, if you consider that it includes around one in seven teenagers.
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