Mental Health In Music

Is there anything more important than your mental health? 

What kind of mental health issues can sneak up on you while you’re out on a limb tackling one of the toughest careers that being a full-time artist? 

This important subject is of special interest to me, and hopefully you too. 

Sadly, the music industry is crammed full of people with mental health issues. To me, it always seemed that way but fortunately we now live in a world where it is recognised and discussed, and people can easily get help enabling a good life.

Chicken or Egg?

This may sound odd, but I’ve never been able to ascertain why mental health issues are so prevalent.  Does a music career attract a certain personality type or predisposition for mental health issues or is it the unstable nature of the music vocation itself that leads to disorders that seem to permeate the industry?

I say this because at the top end of the industry, let’s say, among those who are devoted to a full-time professional career as an artist, there always seems to be a high degree of dysfunctionality.

Now that’s not everyone, of course.

However, there seems to be a disproportionate number of people in the business who experience mental health conditions.

I’m not suggesting it’s One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, and the Chief is standing at your side, but there are apparent industry-wide issues that prevail.  

Alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, and many more feature among the incidence of mental health conditions.

I have seen all these mental health disorders in full flight, at one time or another – from heroin usage and suicide through to crippling anxiety and explosive mood swings and tantrums. 

Drug Addiction

As I mention in episode 8 You Gotta Say No, the singer in my very first band who suffered from depression, died from a heroin overdose on his parents lounge room floor next to his girlfriend.

At the time I was deep within the music machine, I was never really concerned about the odd and quirky behaviours of my peers. 

But as an older person, I can now clearly see many of those behaviours were very odd and sometimes really troubled. They were problematic mental health issues that permeated the industry to the point where I don’t recall anyone who was normal!

The sad thing about mental health disorders is that often appear invisible, which minimises the help available because we all seem to be attuned to the ‘if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ maxim. 

Physical injuries are most often visible and very obvious, so we think, “Oh yeah, I can see that cut your head from when you fell, it must be painful!”  

A mental illness is very different. Informing someone you experience depression, for example, to provide an explanation for why you need to step back and take a more gentle approach, you’ll most likely be greeted with suspicion and distrust. 

Your mental condition, imperceptible and unmeasurable, is less acceptable and the message translates to others negatively and with a degree of disbelief.   

You might even be considered a malingerer or worse – deceitful, in order to gain some personal benefit.  They can’t see your mental health challenges, so it’s hard for them to believe. 

Why is this and what can we do?

The Surfing incident

I personally know how the grim spectre of darkness can surreptitiously tap you on the shoulder and take control of your life. 

While you’re grappling with this extremely odd life choice of being an artist, dealing with rejection and acceptance, coupled with a good dose of poverty and an overwhelming sense of futility, the conditions are conducive to depression, which can take hold when you least expect or need it.

When my band Alcotomic was at it’s peak in 1998, my girlfriend and I took a long weekend break down the coast. We had a fantastic time away from the madness of the city and the music industry, and we mostly relaxed on the beach. 

While surfing, I was struck in the head by my surfboard. Nothing unusual I thought – until later that evening. A crippling headache emerged which was so severe that I was taken to hospital for a series brain scans. It was quite frightening and rattled me more than I though possible.

Fortunately, no bleeding on the brain or other trauma was found. My neurologist couldn’t figure out what was going on.  And worse, he said there was really very little he could provide to stop the headache. 

Two Years of Pain

The headache lasted for two years – every day and night for what seemed forever. Yes, it was a very long two years with very little relief.

I was told to take heavy-duty pain killers around the clock to try to dull the pain. Coughing and laughing was absolute torture, so you can only imagine what it was like to try and sing.

It was such a grim situation.  I had very little choice if I was going to have a chance of succeeding in the industry, so I soldiered on the band.

I attempted to continue touring and songwriting but the pain was completely debilitating. Medication was doing very little to ease the constant headache but I kept pushing on, knowing full well that the band was on the verge of a major breakthrough. 

It was such a special band that meant the world to me. We were more than band members; we were like brothers.

But sure enough, living with severe pain, I fell into a dark hole of depression.

With the ongoing headaches and feeling that the band’s momentum was slipping through my fingers, I was simply unable to cope any longer. 

Gobsmacked

Wow…

Me, of all people?  I had always been an unstoppable force of positivity and unwavering optimism, the driving force and visionary of all bands I had been involved with. 

That energy and positivity had been seeped away and I had become the opposite of my previous self. It’s evidence that mental health issues don’t discriminate, and we are all potentially vulnerable.

Without ever pinning down the actual cause for my headache, the second neurologist I saw suggested that perhaps it was heightened by the stressful vocation of being a full-time musician.

I suppose living on and below the poverty line, skipping meals, working nights, and not sleeping well were contributors. He may have been right.

Either way, it had happened to me and I accepted it. But what was more difficult to accept was  the consequent decline in my music career.  

My career ground to a halt – again. Towards the end of the two-year headache, my energy and focus did eventually return.  But the moment was lost and disappointingly, it was too late for Alcotomic. 

Momentum Is Key

Momentum is absolutely critical for a band’s success. Unable to wait around, both Andy and Paul had understandably taken up positions in other bands. The loss haunted me for many years. It was such a shame.

It’s important to point out here, this is just life – stuff happens. I ‘m not bitter or remorseful about  being depressed, or that it happened at a critical point in my career.

In fact, it simply reinforced my desire to succeed and many great things happened following this chapter of my life.

I think of mental health just like physical health now. You need to continually look after it in order to have a good life that is free from illness.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that it’s not always so easy to do. 

Life is always throwing you curve balls and you never know when one is coming your way. You need to be prepared for the worst and make sure you enjoy what you’ve got in the present.

Five Mile Sniper 2015

Reach Out

In 2015, when I was launching Five Mile Sniper, the band connected with the Reach Out organisation, which is one of Australia’s premier mental health bodies. They work tirelessly to support people with mental health problems and save lives. 

Even though there wasn’t a lot of revenue involved, we donated all income from the debut single called “Can’t Go On”, to Reach Out. It was a song I had written about youth suicide and it was enormously satisfying to do our bit to help.

I could spend the rest of this episode telling you tales of woe about challenges of dealing with some of the many mentally unwell people in the music industry, but that’s not helpful for anyone.

It may be better if we look at how to identify and assist someone with a mental health condition.

What to look for?

What signs might you be looking for in someone you suspect has a mental health issue?

  • consistent unusual behaviour
  • sporadic irregular and alienating activities
  • emotional instability 
  • overly intense personal relationships
  • dramatic behaviour aimed at drawing attention
  • anxieties and fears
  • shyness or ironic avoidance
  • eating issues
  • excessive alcohol or drug use

Many people with living with a disorder may actually be unaware of it. If you know someone who seems to be mentally unwell, one approach is to sensitively discuss your observations of their behaviour and offer support and help them to find a doctor, make an appointment and even go with them, if needed.

Quite often people who are told they have a personality disorder just don’t believe it. It isn’t uncommon for them to get angry or defensive. Keep trying to share your concerns if someone is refusing help and enlisting the help of family and friends may be required. 

Having an undiagnosed mental health issue is, of course, one thing, however adding a cocktail of alcohol and illicit drugs is a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes in the music industry, there can be fame and money also, which just further complicates the situation.

Crowded House

You only need to look as far as the Crowded House drummer and TV personality, Paul Hester. He had mental health issues for many years experiencing depression and mood swings. 

There has been a good deal of speculation that his condition was largely unmanaged. Unable to cope any longer, he hung himself from a tree in Elsternwick Park on March 26 2005. A great person and incredible musician, lost to all.  

The list of deaths in the music industry as a result of mental health disorders is very lengthy. Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Avicii, Chris Cornell, Michael Hutchence, Nick Drake, Chester Bennington, etc, etc… I suspect many had incorrect diagnoses, ceased their medication, or had inadequate support and assistance.

Fortunately, we now live in a world where we understand and support people with mental health issues, particularly young people when first diagnosed. When I grew up, you ridiculed, assaulted, or told to shut up, don’t be weak and pull it together. 

No wonder so many of my close friends became drug addicts that either overdosed or suicided. There was never support back then.

It breaks my heart just thinking about how different it would have been for them had they be born 20 years later.

Support?

You might now be wondering what you can do and where you can get support. In Australia, there is Beyond Blue, Reach Out, SANE, Headspace, and so many more.

Most have 24-hour chat services to begin the process of speaking (confidentially) with a professional who can help.

Often, just talking to someone can be the most incredibly healing process. If you know someone or think you may have mental health issues, this can be the best place to begin.

Just pick up the phone and begin to share your story with someone, just like I’m doing now!

Modern living

It seems everyone is under enormous pressure nowadays, and social media isn’t helping. I’m discovering more and more close friends and family who are using medication in conjunction with counselling to help improve their mental health and their lives.

There is nothing wrong with this, nothing. 

If you have a damaged ACL, as one of my friends actually does, you go to a physiotherapist, and maybe an occupational therapist and masseur, if needed. You may require medication and even an operation. 

There is NO difference between that and having a mental health issue. You get help, get better, and move on.

Random Surprises

So there I was, throughout my younger years, believing a life of unpredictably and random surprises was wonderful and exciting.  The music business fits that bill.

I discovered, in fact that the exact opposite – structure, predictably and family were what I really needed for the stability of my own mental health. Responsibility is a powerful concept.

It can take years to figure out these things, as it did for me. I still occasionally fantasise about a life of unpredictability and excitement, but I know better now.

I encourage you look closely at your own life and the choices you’ve made. Ask yourself if the choices you’ve made have helped or hindered your growth as a person. Are you happy or are you struggling?

If you’re struggling, see if you can make some minor adjustments in your life. Ensure you treat yourself better and more kindly, in ways that can lead to a happy and mentally healthy life. 

And you know what, you can still play music too!

Best of luck.

This is such an important topic, and I ask that you jump on the indie confidential blog and share your story with all of us. It’s a really good way to move forward. 

Leave your comments and any questions on my blog below. You can also follow me on Instagram @indieconfidential. This blog is also available as a podcast here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or whatever streaming service you’re using. That way you’ll be notified when my weekly episode is available.

The next episode of Indie Confidential is one of my favourite subjects: leaving your comfort zone.

Are you living in your comfort zone or are you challenging yourself and growing as a person? 

I’ve got some great stories for you.

I’ll catch you soon.

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