Musicians and Mental Illness: What is Being Done to Help
Musicians suffer more mental ill health than the general population, yet their lifestyles make them harder to support. The industry is now taking action to combat mental illness in musicians.
In 2009, Anders Osborne found himself at rock bottom. He was bankrupt, his house was in foreclosure, his wife had kicked him out, and he couldn’t see his two young kids. His livelihood was playing gigs, but he couldn’t even do that — he’d often show up too drunk or high to perform. “For close to a year, I’d [either] try to find a friend’s couch to sleep on [or] I lived in the park,” says Osborne, a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Phil Lesh to Tim McGraw. “I ruined everything.” Osborne, then 42, was eight years into his latest struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, which manifested in psychotic episodes and hallucinations. “The bipolar tendencies, like staying up for days and days, flourished in my addiction,” he says. “I’d make these dramatic changes from, like, Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, and before you know it, I’m hitchhiking somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”
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Osborne’s story isn’t new. Every generation has its share of musicians — from Charlie Parker and Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — who’ve battled addiction and mental illness. (The two are closely linked; according to national data, about half of people who suffer from mental illness will also experience substance abuse during their lives.)
Lately, it’s become clear that the number of artists suffering is staggeringly high. In a 2018 study from the Music Industry Research Association, 50 percent of musicians reported battling symptoms of depression, compared with less than 25 percent of the general adult population. Nearly 12 percent reported having suicidal thoughts — nearly four times the general population. According to a 2019 study published by Swedish digital-distribution platform Record Union, the numbers are even starker: It found that 73 percent of independent musicians have battled stress, anxiety, and depression.
As album sales continue to fall and record labels and digital distributors gobble up the majority of streaming revenue, artists essentially have no choice but to tour more and more. “We’ve hit a tipping point where the people who work in our industry — artists as well as crew — are commodities,” says Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, a professor at the University of Southern California’s music school and a longtime mental-health advocate. “People are working twice as hard to stay in the same spot they used to. The pressures are ratcheted up.”
Aside from financial instability, all kinds of stressors accompany this literal gig economy: loneliness; being surrounded by drugs and alcohol; strain on relationships; poor sleeping and eating habits; lack of access to quality health insurance and care, and so on. “Creatives in the industry today suffer more because their routines are so destabilized,” says Dr. Chayim Newman, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist whose private practice focuses on performers and touring artists. “The intense, long hours on the road or in the studio create a challenge in maintaining health routines and healthy relationship routines.” Or, as Osborne puts it, “it’s the perfect collision” for a breakdown.
While top-tier musicians aren’t immune to these problems, they tend not to be the ones hardest hit, at least when it comes to financial and health-care issues. “For every artist that stands onstage, there are 10 to 100 crew members invisible to the public who make that performance, tour, or album run,” says Newman. “Those crew members all burn out in the same way [as the artist].”
There may even be neurological reasons why so many artists struggle with mental health. “Centers in the limbic system that control negative emotion tend to be more heavily [located] in the right side of the brain,” says Newman. Translation: “Right-brained” people — like artists, who can more easily tap into their feelings — “tend to have dominance in the side of the brain that creates more negative emotions,” he says. “We might even say there’s a predisposition for [that].”
What’s more, performing can throw an artist’s bodily systems out of whack. “With the pressure and rush of the stage, artists are in this ramped-up sympathetic-activation mode,” says Newman. “It almost looks like the equivalent of a panic state, except it’s being induced by voluntary circumstances.”
In the past few years, these problems have played out in striking and tragic terms. In 2019 alone, Silver Jews’ David Berman, guitarist Neal Casal, Yonder Mountain String Band founder Jeff Austin, and Prodigy singer Keith Flint all died by suicide. In the two years prior, rapper Mac Miller suffered an accidental drug overdose, and superstar DJ Avicii, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington all died by suicide.
cornell berman casal mental health
Chris Cornell, David Berman and Neil Casal. Photographs by Casey Curry/Invision/AP/Shutterstock; Brent Stewart; Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Casey Curry/Invision/AP/Shutterstock; Brent Stewart; Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Now, the music industry is taking action like never before to address the growing mental-health crisis. There are new initiatives popping up from both corporate giants and grassroots organizations; festivals and benefits being planned to raise awareness of mental health; and efforts by record labels and artists to destigmatize mental illness. Musicians from Bruce Springsteen and Justin Bieber to Lizzo and Demi Lovato are increasingly opening up about their own mental-health struggles.
The idea of providing support to artists has been around for decades — the Recording Academy launched MusiCares to lend medical and financial help back in 1989 — but recently, the number of resources for musicians in need exploded. “We’ve lost so many artists that [industry leaders] are finally paying attention,” says Lyman. “They’re realizing, ‘We can’t have all our artists die.’ ”
Hilary Gleason was friends with both Austin, who died in June, and Casal, who died two months later. “Both were seemingly doing really well in their careers and playing these huge shows,” she says. “It’s a silent killer.” Gleason is the CEO of Level, a consulting firm that connects bands with nonprofits. The day after Casal died, her phone started blowing up with calls from despondent friends and clients. “They said, ‘This is so messed up,’ ” she recalls. “‘What are we going to do?’ ”
Her answer: Organize a conference call with what she calls the “music-industry mental-health task force,” more than 40 music-industry vets, including promoter Pete Shapiro, plus musicians, tour managers, and crew members. “We had a conversation around, ‘Let’s see what initiatives are out there and what the gaps are and where we can throw our support behind,’” says Gleason. “All of us in music understand that it’s both the best thing that ever happened to us and the hardest life we could’ve signed up for.”
Out of that call grew Backline, an organization dedicated to connecting musicians and anyone in their orbit — from roadies and sound engineers to agents and family members — with mental-health resources. (Newman is on the clinical advisory team.) Gleason announced the initiative in early October; 70 submissions came in that month. “We’ve had agents and managers say, ‘I’m experiencing so much anxiety because of my never-ending email inbox and booking for [all these] bands, and I think it should all be great, but I feel this crushing weight,’ ” she says.
Backline acts as a clearinghouse for long-running mental-health resources like MusiCares, Sweet Relief Musicians Fund (founded in 1993 to help artists pay for living expenses), and HAAM (which has been helping Austin-based musicians access affordable health care for 15 years). “There was no central hub for all these places to coexist,” says Backline’s clinical director, Zack Borer, a licensed therapist and musician himself. “We’re trying to bring all the existing organizations out of their silos, where people can see all the things happening.”
Backline’s case managers have a one-on-one conversation with everyone who submits a form on its website, then pairs individuals with the appropriate resources — be it a therapist, life coach, support group, or AA meeting. Backline’s services are free. “The discourse around mental health is changing,” says Borer. “It’s not just sex, drugs, and rock & roll anymore. It’s how sex, drugs, and rock & roll can have a long-term impact.”
Photo by John-Ryan Lockman © WinterWonderGrass Festival All Rights Rerserved 2019
Hilary Gleason. Photo credit: John-Ryan Lockman/Showlove Media
Aside from Backline, a slew of music-focused initiatives launched in the fall. On October 10th — World Mental Health Day — Live Nation announced it was backing a new nonprofit called Tour Support, which gives artists, crew members, and vendors on a given tour 24/7 access to a therapist via phone or online. (Vicky Cornell, Chris’ widow, is a partner, and artists from John Legend to My Morning Jacket have endorsed the organization.) Live Nation also recently funded an industry guide to mental-health best practices published by the Music Industry Therapist Collective. “With more artists touring than ever before, it’s increasingly important to consider the challenges that artists, crews, and vendors face while on the road for long periods of time,” says Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino. “It’s inspiring to see major industry players step up to tackle some of those issues.”