A High Cost: How the biz is fighting back against mental illness
People in every profession and walk of life struggle with maintaining a healthy mind, and in an increasingly fast-paced and over-stimulated world, problems including anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction and burn-out affect all corners of society.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Tragically, almost 800,000 lives are lost to suicide each year, equating to one death every 40 seconds. Mental health-related issues, then, are certainly not unique to the live music industry. However, many of the factors that contribute to problems – such as intense stimulation, irregular sleeping patterns, substance abuse, high pressure and loneliness – are often encountered by those within it.
The “competitive, turbulent and stressful” nature of the live entertainment industry, as well as “long working hours, poor boundaries between social and work life, and easy access to drink and drugs” pose many challenges to those working within it, says agent-turned-psychotherapist Tamsin Embleton.
The pressure to gain and maintain success at one end, and job precarity and financial pressures for those starting out in the industry, or working in low-level backstage positions, at the other, can also increase the risk of harmful behaviours.
The specific demands and pressures thrown up by touring present further challenges to those working at all levels and in all sectors of the industry. “Live performers often have issues with loneliness,” states Association for Electronic Music (AFEM) regional manager Tristan Hunt, referencing the abrupt emotional comedown experienced after performing to a fan-filled venue.
“Acts can also struggle with the demands of performing multiple times in a short period, or experience things like performance anxiety,” continues Hunt. “This is combined with access to substances to alleviate those pressures.”
A recent study into musicians’ mental health, carried out by Swedish digital music distributor Record Union, revealed that 73% of artists surveyed had suffered from mental health issues. Those working behind the scenes face similar issues, too. “Artists normally have management and a support network, but the people around them are under immense strain, too,” Andy Franks, co-founder of mental health charity Music Support, tells IQ.
“The doors always have to open, and the show always has to go on. There’s an incredible amount of pressure and euphoria, and when it’s over there’s quite a void in your life,” says Franks.
“Once shared, the problem gets smaller”
A rising awareness
Conversations surrounding wellbeing within the industry have cropped up more and more in recent years. The tragic, high-profile suicide of Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, in 2018, and the death of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint earlier this year, shocked and saddened many and thrust mental wellbeing into the spotlight.
Backstage, professionals attending the ILMC Production Meeting (IPM) in March spoke of the “sad reality” of losing friends and colleagues to suicide, discussing ways in which working conditions could be altered to prioritise the welfare of staff.
Support has sprung up in a variety of forms, from documents detailing modes of best practice, to scientific study into the mechanisms of a healthy mind, and music industry specific helplines to offer a friendly and knowledgeable voice to those in need.
Lina Ugrinovska, international booker at Macedonia-based Password Production, was public about a 2016 burn out. “When I shared my own story, and every step of the way afterwards, I realised that talking about it really does makes a big difference,” she says, “I’m really pleased to see that many initiatives and support centres have been built, and personal stories have been shared.”
Perceived stigma around mental health can often prevent individuals from speaking out, accentuating feelings of isolation and exacerbating the severity of issues. “Once shared, the problem gets smaller,” says Ugrinovska, who began her own initiative, Mental Health Care in the Music Industry, last year. Since then, she has been an advocate for mental health at international conferences across Europe and also formed part of the first decentralised Ni9ht H3lps workshop in Prague.
However, in Ugrinovska’s native Macedonia, as well as the rest of the Balkan region, she says there is “nothing” to support music industry professionals struggling with mental health issues. “The market here is really small and so is the number of people involved in the industry, but we are also facing the same struggles and people do not know who they can turn to,” says Ugrinovska.
The focus on mental health in panel discussions, expert talks and workshops at major industry conferences and events is a good step towards disseminating information about available services, as well as normalising and destigmatising the taboo. “People are hungry for information [about mental health and wellbeing], and they are also keen to find out about it in a slightly more dynamic way,” says Jenni Cochrane, co-founder of Getahead, a 24-hour “festival of the head.”
Fusing education and entertainment, Get Ahead shines the spotlight on employee wellbeing, informs people of where to get help, and celebrates life, according to Cochrane. “There’s no real understanding of the damage mental health issues are having on musicians and other staff, too,” she states, “but collectively, we are all becoming more in tune with it.”
“Peer support is an incredible thing”
Raising awareness and stimulating conversation is one way of removing stigma and encouraging people to voice their struggles. However, complex specificities continue to govern the culture of silence in many parts of the industry, as Lori Rubinstein, executive director of US-based Behind the Scenes Foundation, explains.
“People who are used to being on tour are not used to speaking out – they are the ones who solve the problems,” states Rubinstein, whose foundation provides grants to production workers unable to work due to illness or injury. Being on the road, says the Behind the Scenes executive, means individuals are away from family and friends and often working in a temporary team of colleagues who are unlikely to pick up on changes in behaviour.
The transitory and highly specific nature of touring also complicates the establishment of a relationship with a regular therapist, or other medical professional, who may be sensitive to the situation at hand. To combat these issues, some music industry professionals have taken matters into their own hands.
Music Support came about from the desire to create a service that was “fine-tuned” to the needs of those in the music business, says co-founder Franks. Having suffered personally from addiction issues and finding himself “at a loss” as to how to tackle it, he wanted to prevent others from having the same experience.
The 24/7 helpline offers industry-specific advice and guidance for music industry professionals struggling with mental illness and points them in the direction of appropriate medical help. The initiative has set up backstage areas known as “safe tents” at major music festivals across the UK, including Download, Reading and Leeds Festivals and British Summer Time in Hyde Park, to offer people an “escape” and a space to get some respite and information.
The spaces also host Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings for those struggling with addiction on the road.
“Peer support is an incredible thing,” says Franks. “We don’t necessarily have all the solutions but we can let people know that this is not something they have to suffer alone.”
Offering a clinical perspective is the Music Industry Therapist Collective, a group of psychotherapists and counsellors with a background in the industry. The collective, based in London and Los Angeles, works in person and online with individuals and bands, as well as offering workshops and group therapy. The collective is also working on a best practice guide, the Touring and Mental Health manual, to tackle issues including performance anxiety; relationship difficulties; addiction; stress and burn-out; trauma; and post-tour depression.
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