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Why 2016 was a breakthrough year for mental health in music

With high profile artists speaking out and new campaigns tackling the problem head on, this year has seen a sea change in the music industry’s perception of mental health issues

If at some point in 2016 you’ve noticed the overwhelming number of musicians who’ve come forward with their personal stories of mental health, you’re not the only one. The past 12 months alone have seen Adele speak out about her own struggles with postnatal depression, Lady Gaga pen an open letter about her own diagnosis of PTSD, Zayn Malik share both his experiences of anxiety after pulling out of a concert and his struggles with an eating disorder, and Years & Years’ Olly Alexander speak out about his treatment for depression, anxiety, and bulimia. Add to that both Halsey and Kehlani talking openly about suicide attempts, Selena Gomez sharing that she’s taking time off to deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, and Justin Bieber admitting to feeling “emotionally exhausted to the point of depression” after fan meet and greets, it seems that mental health in music has been everywhere this year.

Last month, a report released by Help Musicians UK suggested that musicians may be more than three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than the general public. The report, which was compiled of responses from 2,211 musicians and music industry professionals, said that 71% of those surveyed had suffered from panic attacks or high levels of anxiety and 65% had suffered from depression, compared to around one in five of the general population. There’s long been a fascination with mental illness and creativity – in music, everyone from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Syd Barrett to Kurt Cobain have struggled with mental health issues and been unhelpfully cast as a ‘tortured genius’ because of it – yet the report suggests that rather than the “pervasive idea circulating that creativity and madness are somehow related”, it’s often the working conditions of the industry that contribute to a higher rate of mental health problems. Some examples suggested by the report range from “the difficulty of sustaining a living” to “anti-social working hours, exhaustion, and the inability to plan their time/future” – and this is without delving into issues like strenuous touring, spending time away from home, or the greater accessibility of drugs and alcohol that can contribute to higher incidences of mental health problems.

Help Musicians have existed to aid musicians of all genres and stages of their careers since 1930. Their current chief executive, Richard Robinson, tells me he’s also noticed a recent rise in musicians in the public eye coming forward to share their own experiences of mental health problems. “There has been a growth in understanding around not just mental health but also addiction, across the whole music industry,” he says. “We’ve seen a number of musicians who are coming out and saying ‘Look, I’ve had these issues in the past.’ Now clearly we want more people to do that. We want the stigma to be lessened.”

“Musicians may be more than three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than the general public”

Not only have high profile artists been speaking out about their own issues, but the wider industry has been stepping up too. This year, Matt Thomas, a music industry veteran who’s previously worked in marketing for major labels and as an artist manager, co-founded Music Support, a charity run by music industry volunteers that provides a confidential helpline not just for artists but “management companies or roadies or people at record labels or accountants or travel agents,” as he explains. “It’s such a unique industry that we thought it could do with some people from inside the industry offering help, rather than (people) outside the industry coming in and telling everybody what they should be doing.” Thomas also says he’s noticed a recent surge in artists wanting to talk about mental health. “I think that’s led to people being more comfortable talking about their (own) issues or seeking help, even if just calling a confidential helpline. The terminology now is less frightening and more acceptable and it’s easier to talk about anxiety or depression than it was five years ago.”

The industry is not just coming together to tackle mental health problems internally, but looking towards the wider public as well. In November of this year, CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity campaigning against male suicide) launched Torch Songs, a project that aims to bring together music lovers and artists to celebrate the power of music to guide through difficult times. Artists like Years & Years, The Vaccines, and Twin Atlantic have recorded cover versions of songs that have helped them through tough experiences and the charity is encouraging fans to share their own ‘Torch Songs’ on social media. As CALM chair James Scroggs explains, it’s a way for the charity to reconnect with the music industry in order to reach young men, who are most at risk of dying by suicide than any other cause.

“It felt natural to go to music to try and get young men to talk about (mental health) within the comfortable realm of talking about great music,” he says, “Torch Songs came out from the desire to reconnect with the music industry.” Scroggs cites the significance of dubstep producer/DJ Benga speaking out about his experience being sectioned and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in the growing discussion around music and mental health. “It seemed to open a bit of a floodgate of people – or young men, should I say – becoming a lot more vocal in an industry that has been squeezed enormously,” he says. “Revenues are down and the ability to turn music into a career seems to be much more fraught than it ever was.”

We may be seeing the music industry becoming more vocal about mental health than ever before, but how are we reacting to it? Last month, as the news of Kanye West being hospitalised for stress and exhaustion broke, you’d be forgiven for expecting a media storm of unfair scrutiny – or worse, an industry silence with no-one wanting to address the issue of mental health straight on. But rather than distancing themselves from the issue, many reached out: in the middle of a BBC Live Lounge performance, Chance the Rapper announced that “I want to extend a very special prayer to my big brother Kanye West… extend this love,” while on social media, hip hop producer 9th Wonder tweeted that “mental healing is a serious thing, no matter what. Stay strong Kanye West.”

BBC Radio One’s Huw Stephens, who is an ambassador for CALM’s Torch Songs campaign, agrees that the way we react to artists with mental health problems seems to be beginning to shift. “(With Kanye) social media was full of people going, ‘Oh, maybe he’s been ill? Maybe he’s been suffering from mental health (issues)? How awful, I hope he’s okay,’” he says. “And it is so important. Mental health is an issue that gets swept under the carpet and isn’t always talked about... Maybe five years ago (the reaction) would have been different, and I think now it is getting better.”

“If 2016 has been an important year in seeing ever more public figures speak out about their own mental health struggles, the next step for the industry will be to turn that open dialogue into concrete change”

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that there seems such a rise in those in the industry talking about mental health – with social media, it’s never been easier to see both an artist’s highs and lows. “A lot of artists, when I was growing up, were always slightly untouchable and slightly enigmatic and just out of reach,” James Scroggs suggests. “Now, our ability as consumers to access what’s going on with artists and for them to feel the pressure of publicly stating what their life looks like, whether it’s on Instagram or Twitter or whatever, means that the degrees of separation between a fan and an artist are so slim now that in a sense it doesn’t take much to work out when an artist is not having good time.”

Social media may be quick to reveal when an artist isn’t having a good time, but it can also offer an opportunity for artists to use their platform to speak out about their own issues to help others. CALM’s Torch Songs, with its #whatsyourtorchsong hashtag is one example this year, but it’s not the only one. When rapper Kid Cudi shared the news on Facebook this October that he had checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal feelings, it gave rise to the hashtag #YouGoodMan as a space to discuss race, masculinity, and depression, both in music and outside, and elsewhere created a thread of people sharing songs that discuss black men and mental health. With men accounting for 75% of all suicides in the UK last year and with BAME communities being more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem, it feels particularly important that high profile artists like Kid Cudi are speaking out about their own mental health experiences.

Yet while a wave of public figures in music speaking out about their own issues is no doubt a good thing for mental health in general, the question remains as to how this translates into real change for the average person. Without addressing the problems that contribute to mental health issues in the first place – notably, the fact that the music industry is full of unstable and inconsistent work, compounded by the fact that mental health sector cuts by the Tory government show little sign of slowing – there’s the risk that charities like CALM, Help Musicians UK, and Music Support are increasingly being seen as the first place to go for many mental health crises. “There was going to be a point – and I think we’re at it – where the public outcry and the shock and awe around the stats will meet the lack of provision,” Scroggs says. “And so I think it’s going to be really interesting in the next couple of years to see what the response is, because the danger is that charities like ours are increasingly seen as an emergency service to mop up behind the absence of other services. And clearly, that’s not our job.”

Richard Robinson from Help Musicians also says that it’s important that the music industry remembers mental health affects those at all stages of their careers, not just those in the public eye. “Actually, our evidence suggests that clearly it’s not just about fame, it’s not about people who are big names, but (that it affects everyone) from freelance musicians in orchestras who are struggling to make ends meet right the way through to DJs who are spending all of their time on their own going from hotel to hotel,” he says. “I think perhaps what the media and the press could do is focus on the working on the working musician as well as the stars of the industry, because it goes from the grassroots upwards.”

Next year, Help Musicians is planning to release a follow-up report to the one released last month, from which Robinson says they hope to make “make educated and intelligent strategy with partners in the industry” to tackle mental health in music head-on. CALM, meanwhile, plans to continue its Torch Songs campaign with new artists, and Music Support is planning to widen the reach of its helpline to make it available to more people. If 2016 has been an important year in seeing ever more public figures speak out about their own mental health struggles, the next step for the industry will be to turn that open dialogue into concrete change.