Musicians. Mental Health. The big taboo.
Now I’m happy to be open about my own mental heath problems. I have lived with them all my life. I’ve always had a propensity to depression and anxiety and its taken me a good many years to get to a point I consider I have a healthy and positive handle on it. I’m good. I’m healthy.
When things get tough as life inevitably does from time to time the ‘Black Dog’ can appear at the door, tail wagging but it never gets on my back or pulls me down the street on it’s leash anymore. I shoo it away with my well practiced dog whispering techniques.
I can’t help but think what I’ve talked about so far in part one has had an impact on many of us as musicians (Not that I should exclusively assume its just musicians that go through this I know people from all walks of life go through it but as I’m a Musician in this piece I’ll be looking at it from that perspective) without the fact that statistically we are more likely to suffer from depressive and mental illness anyway.
Here’s the results of a recent survey conducted by Help Musicians: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/assets/publications/files/can_music_make_you_sick_summary.pdf
The issues I discussed about social media have had an impact on me for certain. But does the issue of mental health amongst musicians go much deeper than just that? Is it just the tip of a very large Iceberg?
From talking to other musicians happy to discuss their own mental health there’s certainly many positive effects being creative has on us. That I can definitely attest to. Its been my ‘Safe place’ for many years. I’ll talk about that too but there’s still many where it’s far from positive and I feel we need to peer a little in to the darkness as well to understand where to find some light.
Now lets start by saying I’m no expert in the field of mental health but I am a musician and I have suffered from mental health issues so in a way I do qualify right?
What I mean to say is there are official pieces of research and writing flagging up these issues but I wanted to put forward my own angle on it. And in the process maybe inspire others to start talking about it to. Here’s some further reading should you fancy delving in:
As I mentioned in part one this all started from a social media post that I’d been reading and conversations I’d been involved in on Facebook regarding Ed Sheeran and his recent Glastonbury appearance. What got me the most wasn’t wether people liked Ed’s music or not but the freedom in which people used derogatory comments and language to express themselves and how this language made me feel.
To me there’s a fine line that we tread to where it spills over into an uglier place and it becomes personal and abusive. It worried me how it affected those who suffered from mental illness or indeed those who didn’t and how it could sow the seeds for issues to occur in the future perhaps?
Unlike what the popular saying says actually words can hurt you and yes they can have real impact. Personally I can’t help feeling we forget this all too readily now when within the realms of social media and online. It’s too easy to say things we can’t take back. One stroke of that enter key and bam! It’s out there online forever.
If I am completely honest I’ve been mildly depressed and had some anxiety issues recently, something I’ve put down to the comedown from a charity 134 mile walk/gig tour I completed in early June an achievement I am massively proud of but the inevitable crash afterwards did catch me out add in some recent less than positive social media interaction and comments that knocked me back a bit. Yeh I’m not as thick skinned as some have me labeled.
It knocks you back in varying ways from lowering your self esteem, you start to lack confidence, self doubt creeps in, withdrawing from people, anger too. Thoughts start to swarm around in your head like flies buzzing incessantly “Why me?” “What have I done?” “Why don’t they like me or my music?” “I must be shit?” These thoughts and emotions all too easily become all too real all too quickly.
I’m lucky, I’ve had counselling and various therapies over the years to help me deal with my bouts of depression and I’m happy to say it’s been short lived this time and I have the tools and support to deal with it and I have.
Its part of my life but not something that rules my life anymore like it has done.
In the past my illness had affected my relationships with people, at times my behaviour had been erratic or terribly introverted, particularly in my late teens and early twenties.
I’d been bullied a lot at High School. The School failing to address this meant it escalated to a point I was beaten on the street by my own skateboard and sustained a broken rib and black eyes! what fun! As far as memory serves me the reason for this attack was simply my being considered different.
It was the late 1980’s and it seemed some in my neighbourhood had a long way to go as far as accepting ‘outsiders’ goes!
I was a skateboarding and cycling fanatic obsessed with art and music. I literally devoured any music I could find like food! disappeared for hours on my own on my bike far from anyone or skated up and down our street until it was dark. My world. My safe place. I dressed a bit differently and wasn’t fashionable. Shall we say music culture caught my eye at a young age and I dressed accordingly.
I left school early refusing to return aside from completing my exams. The school denied bullying existed. Did nothing. I left with a bitter taste in my mouth. This was 1990 I was 16 years old.
This might also explain some of my feelings now about social media? It does sometimes feel like a school playground that’s for sure.
My anxiety kept me from doing many things I wanted to do as I grew up. It overwhelmed me at times. And I lost out on some opportunities through my simply not wanting to engage. I lasted two weeks at sixth form before walking out jumping on a bus and announcing to my mother I had left and got a job instead. The work environment helped me over my first personal hurdles being around adults maybe helped? Whatever it was I started to feel part of something, less anxious. All this time music and art were my friends, my go to safe place. Looking back it feels like looking at a different person but the same one as well. I did return to college in the end as a mature student and don’t feel too bad for me as I’ve come to the conclusion there’s many good things that came out of it all. I wouldn’t be here typing this had I not gone through these things.
This even made it into the lyric of one of my songs ‘Grounded’
“I’m forever in debt to the heart aches and regrets. The trouble, the joy and the pain. I’ll happily replay mistakes from different days they show me my futures way”
Being a musician or more specifically to me, a songwriter and performer some might think that’s part of it, the whole ‘Tortured Artist’ cliche. I hate this assumption. My depression does not benefit my creativity whatsoever, it’s hindered it.
At my worst I’ll become anti social, non-committal and extremely flaky. I’ll say and focus on negative things and not see a positive in anything I do. It tends to make me lose the ability to enjoy things I love doing. Sleep more, retreat from people and avoid crowds. One recent episode saw me endure several months of stage fright and I was at a point of thinking I’d never be setting foot on stage again. This was odd seeing as the stage was a place I’ve always felt totally at home on! Numbing. Paralysing. These are words I’d use for my experiences of depression and anxiety. It’s certainly never sent me on a manic creative surge and aided me in creating my award winning masterpiece magnum opus!
It has helped me perhaps to be more sensitive to the world around me and empathy is a useful tool in songwriting I’ve found. Post depression I found I had plenty of feelings and subjects to look back on creatively but never has it aided my creativity. I’m honest now about these things and let people know how I’m feeling they then know how to handle me family and friends. They know it’ll pass and actually armed with the knowledge I’m struggling helps them help me and my recovery.
That’s my experience but how do other musicians feel about it? The answer is I’m not entirely sure.
So few of us share those feelings openly with each other. It’s that taboo the big subject no one wants to talk about. Why? How have we got to this point?
Nationally we are talking about mental health more than ever the social taboos are being addressed there is a conversation happening. People are campaigning for better services to deal with mental illness. Yet I find so many musicians unwilling to engage about it.
It’s been in the press all to recently with the sudden and shocking death of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell committing suicide shortly after leaving the stage. The list of famous musician suicides and sufferers of mental illness is sadly long. Kurt Cobain, Phil Ochs, Richard Manuel, Ian Curtis, Nick Drake to name just a few straight from memory all suffered from poor mental health often this came hand in hand with substance or alcohol abuse. Amy Winehouse admitted to self harm and eating disorders and seemingly self medicated with drugs and alcohol and its pretty certain this sadly led to her untimely demise. I too have lost a friend to mental illness. A talented musician and a gentle, kind man, he kept his clearly darkening feelings to himself and now he’s gone. You can’t help but ask yourself those what if’s in that kind of situation.
Maybe this glamorization of the ‘Tortured Artist’ is to blame? I can’t help but think it’s seen as normal and accepted in creative circles and in music media in the past much has been made of this particular cliché. What did the industry surrounding these people do to help? Did they know? We’ll never know for certain but it makes me wonder.
While all these artists should rightly be celebrated and their stellar contributions to music and culture always be remembered. There it looms in the background. Mental illness. Could any of these people have been helped, saved from themselves had we had a better handle on it earlier? We can only surmise. Now however I feel we have no excuse and a duty to be addressing it head on.
My footnote for all this? Be kind. Be considerate. At least give consideration to what you say or how your actions might affect others. Seems obvious doesn’t it? In a world increasingly connected we also seem to becoming disconnected at the same time a paradox we all will be trying to fathom for a good while yet I’m sure.
I posted on my Facebook page asking if anyone I knew who was a musician or involved with music was willing to share their stories or experiences. And some have done just that. What is also heartening is how open and honest they have been also enlightening is how they’ve used their creativity to help them cope and deal with mental illness in a positive way. Self awareness perhaps you could call it? I found reading their accounts and sharing my own a cathartic one. It’s a cliché but a good one and true.
I’ll let them tell you their stories and lets keep telling those stories to each other without a shadow of doubt or embarrassment. Mental Illness is normal.
Anyway here’s some musicians who were happy to share their experience:
Here are their stories:
“So, my friend and fellow music-nerd, Matt Watson, posted on Facebook asking after musicians who have experience of mental health problems and other “taboo” rarely discussed topics.
I suppose you hit the jackpot Matt – although honestly, that’s a figure of speech, and my experience is anything but; and if it applies even in-part to anybody reading this, know that you are not alone.
I wish I hadn’t grown up surrounded by domestic violence. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy (if I had one, because I am nice and kind). Some of my first, early memories are of being abused by a primary care-giver. That abuse continued throughout my childhood, into my teens. And let me tell you – that opens up a *whole* kettle of fish later down the line, just when you think you’ve grown up enough to forget; over time, and with each and every failed relationship, you eventually come to realise that your connection with other people will always be somewhat/entirely overshadowed by your history.
I’ve recently become more accepting and open with others about what has happened to me throughout my life, though not without great difficulty. I shall spare you the intricacies, but it was a conglomeration of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, neglect, being constantly surrounded by ongoing physical fights between my both my parents, and some maltreatment that could only be described as torture – I was the family scapegoat. It eventually progressed to threats of homelessness, and then actual homelessness for a year, and now here I am, not a heroin addict yet, but once again, living in a women’s refuge.
How does all this link in with being a musician?
Well… my parents hid their hideously failing marriage and child-neglect behind a typically British, middle-class home. I had hobbies and interests which they paid for. It wasn’t all drama – it’s just that the bad bits are the bits that are really ingrained – they are the memories that play on repeat, every day. Also, I may as well be dead to my parents. Neither of them have ever bothered to get to know me.
I guess what I wanted most was my parents love and admiration. So like, pretty severely “Narcissistically Deprived.” (Aren’t I a catch?)
I would draw for hours a day, and when I started music lessons I practiced Piano so god damn hard, my fingers would ache, like a tiny hand workout. I once broke my finger in the playground at school, around age 9, and was back on the keys a day later.
Unfortunately, I never got the attention I craved, but what I did get was a pretty darn great intellect. After I’d been playing piano for about a year, I began to notice my cognitive abilities were getting beyond a normal 8 year old’s, and I was morphing into a witty little shit.
See, practicing an instrument wires your brain in such a way that it reinforces the neural connectivity between both hemispheres – so while Childhood Trauma irreversibly damages a person’s frontal lobe (which is involved in the processing of visuals, memories and emotion regulation), it’s not all bad news, if you bother to practice, your scales and arpeggios. You have more “logic brain” like a little human computer.
I feel that being a creative individual has offered me a crucial level of protection from emotional suffering.
It has proved to be a source of joy and vitality, where so much else has been devoid of meaning.
In moments of complete and utter despair, it has been there for me.
It has consistently and repeatedly saved my life.
And when I am older, and have children of my own, I will pass on the very best gift that I will ever be able to give them; Music.” S.
“I’ve always felt that musicians claim to be open minded and yet instead were usually very exclusive. As I’ve got older though it all seems to come from a place of insecurity, probably because they constantly have to expose themselves to potential rejection all the time
As for me, I’ve had depression for years. Pretty mild, and mainly brought on by physical things like lack of sleep, boozing, eating badly etc.
I’ve managed to recognise it and instead of acting out use Music, either listening, playing other people’s stuff or more recently writing my own stuff. It really helps and seems to reset my emotions
I find being in a band helps in other ways too. It’s such a social activity, energetic and emotionally positive that id say I actually get a high from it. It’s really similar to team sports for me” K.
“When I was 16 I learned to play guitar, I wanted to perform, but music seemed the closest offer. I started learning, then one day I baby sat for a neighbour. I picked up an album with an interesting cover and was hooked on Folk/rock. I had never heard this type of music before, rock, melody’s and stories in songs.
I was hooked and wanted to show the world (as I knew it) my discovery. I sought out ‘folk’ clubs, and always performed, trying to perfect my art. However, there were always a few people who perfected the art of bullying. They could never praise me, never appreciate me for trying.
I continued, I even saved some of my hard earned summer wages to hire a room, book a named act and start my own club. I couldn’t afford a support artist, so had to rely on local singer and myself. However, I used to close my eyes when I sang, I couldn’t understand the laughter at the end of a serious ballad. Then a voice boomed ***** ’Poncenby’ *****, You have been found guilty of murdering folk music, you will be taken from this place and hanged by the neck until you are dead.” A Man in a black hood then came from behind and put a noose over my head and I got led out of my club on a rope. Yeah, of course I pretended it was a laugh, but it hurt. It still hurts today when I am told I am not a musician! I’ve never claimed to be, but I am a performer who can sing and play guitar. I think that qualifies. Grrrrrr! So much I could tell you.
That’s why I now promote others especially young musicians, they need assurance, not bullying. They are so much more musically educated than us older guys and should n’t have to suffer the bullying of bitter musicians that probably are not as talented as they are.” R.