Written by Tom Mann (@thedevilandtom)
Being a complete novice at writing, when I was given the opportunity to write about music and mental health I had nowhere to turn other than to my trusty, knowledgable friend – Google.
Unsure where to start but armed with a question, I typed: “Why is music good for your mental health?” Good start, right? The first website that came up was the Daily Mail. Not so good. After disinfecting my eyes from the cesspit of racist remarks, sexist doctrines and shitty clickbait that characterises the Daily Mail website, I decided to go about writing this in a different way.
I guess I’ll start by talking a bit about how music has had an effect on my own mental health. For me, listening to music, as well as writing my own, has had a hugely beneficial impact on my mental wellbeing. I’ve used music as a way to express my feelings since I was old enough to pick up a guitar and play a terrible rendition of ‘Smoke on the Water’. I can still give you a cheesy, heartfelt performance of the first song I ever wrote in response to a teenage break-up, and I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t spent many a night crying in my room listening to beautifully sad songs. Writing lyrics and putting them to music in a band with my closest friends has helped me express myself in ways I would find impossible to just talk about, and performing these songs to a half-filled room of drunken onlookers in a rural pub gives me a strange sense of belonging. It may seem odd to hear that many singers and instrumentalists are battling with anxiety and depression by giving their all and pouring their hearts out on stage in front of an audience, but for many musicians this is the best way to deal with their demons.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the Hans Christian Andersen quote “Where words fail, music speaks” plastered and regurgitated on the Facebook walls of middle-aged women around the world (usually accompanied by a Despicable Me Minion or one of your finest 90s stock photos), but although overused to a cheesy extent, the quote grasps the reason why many people who suffer from mental illnesses use music to express themselves. Music is an escape.
Although music has been scientifically linked to mental wellbeing, studies have found that musicians are up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public. These two seemingly counteractive points have been on my mind for quite some time now: are musicians more depressed than non-musicians due to a high number of mentally ill individuals being drawn to a career in music as a way to express their mental health issues? Or is the music industry itself creating an orchestra of overworked, mentally ill musicians? As someone with hopes of finding a place in the music industry, I feel determined to find out.
The ‘Can Music Make You Sick?‘ University of Westminster / Musictank survey of 2,211 musicians gives us a brilliant insight into the views of professional musicians in the UK. Only twelve pages in, it seems like I’ve already found the answer: “music making is therapeutic, but making a career out of music is destructive.” I can think of so many reasons as to why this may be true. ‘Making it’ in the music industry has always been viewed as an impossible dream, and for good reasons. Although it’s not impossible to ‘make it’ in the industry, the daunting quest of getting your music heard and getting yourself known will definitely take its toll on you. Firstly, you’ll be greeted by the demoralising “when are you going to get a real job?” whenever you mention you’re a musician, or “does that even count as a degree?” when you mention you’re studying music. This will inevitably weaken your spirits. Secondly, the working environment of the music industry is horrible. Small bands hoping to make money from gigs in order to record an EP, get better instruments, and to generally manoeuvre their way into the limelight will be paid – not in cash – but in ‘exposure’ and a bag of nuts. Exposure won’t pay the bills.
Its not hard to see why many professional musicians suffer from mental health issues when they’re under the constant pressure of not knowing when they’re next getting paid, never knowing if they’ll make rent. The life of a touring musician seems exhausting. I’ve spoken to musicians who have stated how constant touring puts pressure on not only themselves, but also their own relationships and personal lives.
So, if music is beneficial to our mental health, but working in the music industry is destructive, what is there to do? It’s not hard to see why many musicians are going down the DIY-route and self-releasing their material.
I think we need to challenge the stigma towards mental health issues in the music industry. Many musicians and bands are already helping to do this which is truly inspiring to see, but at the same time many people are openly mocking mental health issues in relation to music. Kanye’s recent problems with his mental health caused him to cancel a tour, and people belittled him for it, saying it was a ploy for attention and publicity. The stigma towards mental health needs to change on all levels – locally, nationally, internationally – and we can all help to transform the music industry into a safe place to talk about mental health issues. Admitting you need help is so challenging but doing so is extremely brave and beneficial – I wish I did it sooner.