OP-ED: Music and mental health – why we need a personalised helpline
Throw back to BIGSOUND 2017, and without much fanfare, Support Act convened a broad panel of industry identities to address the serious problem of mental health in the music industry.
Crammed into an upper room in the Judith Wright Centre was an eclectic group of 30 highly invested people who worked through the big ideas over three hours and average coffee.
Support Act chair Sally Howland presided over the summit, with quiet determination and great grace, considering the diverse pool gathered, including Lindy Morrison, Jo Cave from Support Act, Universal Publishing’s Arwen Curson, music managers Tom Larkin and Rick Chazan as well as Tony Moran from ARCA.
It’s hard get that kind of group to agree on anything, but we were all unanimous about this – we couldn’t go on the way we had been, and something needed to be done.
That something is Support Act’s launch last week of a 24-hour Wellbeing Hotline for the music industry.
The new number that goes into your phone right now is: 1800 959 500.
Any day of the week, any hour of the day, trained counselling support is only a phone call away.
So why does the music industry need its own special service?
Many of the pressures that artists, crew, managers and all those working with them face are being experienced by workers in other industries – true or false?
True actually, but here’s the thing: it is hard to find another industry where they all come together like they do in music.
Here’s a few:
One important way we maintain good mental health is by having strong social connections.
A life in music places unusual stresses on those in the industry. The impact is felt on close personal relationships, many of which sadly don’t hold up over the long term. Whether it’s the loneliness and relational stress of touring, the isolation and physical demands of shift work or the socially isolating experience of fame, this is a high-risk factor for mental health issues.
Having a huge social media following doesn’t make up for close, strong and deep interpersonal connection. The highest level of suffering from this occurs amongst the production and crew. Successful artists can take time off the road, but crew that aren’t touring, aren’t earning.
As in other industries, there’s the constant pressure of performance (you’re only as good as your last gig) and the constant feeling that it’s just you (and your closest colleagues) against the world.
In music, that pressure is exacerbated by the entertainment industry mantra: “the show must go on”.
In other jobs you can have a down day, but in music can’t afford to. You have to deliver at the level of amazing every night.
It might be the 20th show in a row for you, but it is the first time for that audience. Little wonder that on the road when everyone is feeling totally exhausted and with nothing left, it is easy to turn to a chemical additive to help bring the magic.
Before long you can come to depend on it, and then you’re left offstage to deal with after effects, side effects and long-term effects on your mental health.
There’s even a rationale that has grown up around this – the idea that you have to suffer for your art. In the midst of distress, it is easy to fall back on that myth as a kind of an excuse.
Megan Washington (in a widely reported interview) famously debunked the myth that the best art comes from the tortured artist. She has learned that it’s not necessary to create great work.
Week-to-week financial uncertainty
There has been a lot of talk about the gig economy, and its impact on the real wages of workers, not just in Australia.
While Uber has been the target of blame for the erosion of working conditions, I wonder how many musicians hear that debate and laugh to themselves knowing that the music industry is the very epitome of the gig economy?
Artists, crew, publicists and managers have been struggling with uncertain incomes, no holiday pay, no sick leave and the like for decades. If there is one theme that overarches the entire industry experience, it is that of uncertainty.
Most working in the industry are effectively functioning as start-up entrepreneurs, totally backing themselves and their creative ideas while trying to figure out the ins and outs of running a business.
All of this in a financial environment where the more than half of Australian artists take home under $10,000 a year from their music work. The studies show that entertainment industry workers experience rates of anxiety and depression five times the national average. Maybe that’s because they’ve got a lot to be anxious about.
Culture of alcohol and substance abuse
One Sydney-based music academic who commented on the culture of alcohol and substance abuse in the industry explained it by saying that everybody knows that the industry is full of disturbed people. I think that sums up the problem.
From the outside, it is too easy to write it off to the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Admittedly, there are some who choose to live that way.
My view is that when you put highly sensitive, highly emotional and incredibly divergent thinkers into the same melting pot, a few drinks or few chemicals are the path of least resistance when you’re feeling overwhelmed, in pain, or stressed. Then it becomes a habit. These same people have a job where they are professionally required to be vulnerable in front of lots of people.
They are also professionally required to have a bullet-proof ego to survive.
It doesn’t take long for a culture of alcohol and substance abuse to develop around that – and then it extends off the stage.
If you add to that a rapid rise to fame and then an artist become somewhat insulated from reality. James Taylor observed during a performance with Elvis Costello that in his opinion the psychological stress of that experience is responsible for a lot of early deaths in the industry.
Abuse and harassment
There is a also a high risk to your personal safety when you work in environments where you are suddenly on the receiving end of alcohol-fueled abuse and violence.
The link between alcohol and violence is so well established in the research we don’t need to go into it here. Suffice it to say that if you’re in the music industry, you come face to face with that risk every time you work.
If it’s not from audiences, it can be from colleagues whose drug and alcohol consumption is a toxic cocktail that can play out anywhere, anytime.
If you have ever experienced any form of harassment whatsoever from a colleague, you will know that it produces a long-lasting breach of trust, has a profound impact on the way you come to regard your workplace, and in particular, your sense of personal safety is violated.
Harassment is often based in gender and power, and sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is about to come under closer scrutiny thanks to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Sexual harassment isn’t the only form of harassment though. A lot of studies worldwide have also looked into non-gendered forms of harassment: men against men, women against women. That is one of the reasons I am currently in the middle of researching all forms of workplace harassment in the music industry.
It is going to be interesting to see what is found, and how it compares to the nationwide study just announced by the AHRC. If you have ever experienced harassment in your music industry career and you would like to participate anonymously and confidentially in the music industry study then click here.
This amazing Wellbeing Hotline service is proudly supported by the Tony Foundation and Levi Strauss.
If you are in need of support, please contact the Wellbeing Hotline on 1800 959 500 or visit Support Act.
Jeff Crabtree is a speaker, author, researcher, filmmaker and multi award-winning songwriter and music producer.