The Untold Epidemic: Mental Illness in the Music Industry

There is a general perception that being involved in the music industry is a one-way ticket to endless booze, free festivals and raging parties – all while playing to thousands of people screaming your name. Pretty epic right? Even if you’re not the artist on stage, people like roadies still get to roll with the big names, and travel the world for a living. In essence, the reputation the industry seems to be one of pure, unrelenting happiness.

The reality could not be further from the truth. Some seriously scary statistics have been released in the last couple of months that paint a horrifyingly grim picture of the industry. Be warned, some of the statistics are truly shocking.

The Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry Survey from Victoria University found that 10% of professional singers have attempted suicide, while entertainment industry workers are seven times more likely to consider suicide than the general population. For roadies, this jumps to a staggering ten times more likely. The statistics don’t get any better. Entertainment workers are ten times more likely to suffer from depression, and 40% of performers have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

For an industry lathered in external positivity, it’s difficult to get your head around. In some ways though, it’s not surprising at all. Tours are becoming more essential every year with the rise in low-pay streaming, which means more hectic schedules and less sleep. Mix in there a tendency for drug abuse and a little too much alcohol, and you’ve got yourself a dangerous cocktail. It certainly doesn’t help that a whopping 63% of performers earn less than the minimum wage of $34 112 a year.

One of the most recent examples is the last minute cancellation of live shows from The Libertines due to serious anxiety attacks from Pete Doherty. Just two hours before the band was set to hit the stage in London, Pete was headed for a hotel room to shield himself from the spotlight and recover, leaving fans disappointed and confused. A subsequent cancellation of a show in Manchester and a radio gig on BBC Radio 1 followed.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons these statistics seems so shocking. As an objective observer, we only see these performers at their peak – roaring their songs to crowds in a state of temporary bliss. But this lasts only an hour per night, the other 23 hours shielded from us, the passionate fans.

Unfortunately, despite a massive improvement, the stigma of mental illness stubbornly persists. Anxiety and depression are largely misunderstood – namely because they cannot be diagnosed easily and certainly for the majority of the time, and are associated with weakness partly due to the attitudes of previous generations who held silence and toughness about all else.

Mental illness has always been at the heart of the industry, it’s just we never give it the status it deserves. Suicides or overdoses by high profile musicians are swatted away as a condition of extreme fame and success. After all, they are people on another level to us, idolised past the point we can sympathise with their very human emotions right? Imagine being in the public eye constantly, or imagine the pressure to back up a successful debut album. Your livelihood is documented on thousands of blogs and by millions of people around the world, ready to raise you up or tear you down – without a shred of sympathy most of the time. The industry is crowded, packed with ambition that requires a great deal of fight or extreme luck to wade out of the abyss and into the spotlight. And once you’ve reached the spotlight, a whole other set of expectations and pressure are waiting for you at the door.

It has also been suggested that the problem is far greater than just the external factors of the industry. Musicians have always been known as ‘tortured’, and scientists have indeed found that musicians have more sensitive brains than those without musical experience. Whether correct or not, it seems something deeply engrained sits at the heart of the industry that is refusing to dissolve itself. Perhaps it is that people attracted to the arts are more predisposed to mental issues – it’s not an outlandish claim.

There also rests a complicated idea that depression and sadness foster inspiration for artists in that the best songs are written when you’re sad. Medication can quickly transform into a creative hindrance and something to be avoided.

Ultimately, it is an industry built on hopes and dreams, most of which fail to materialise. With these statistics, we need to seriously re-evaluate how we deal with mental health in a desperately struggling industry and remember that any one of these statistics could be on stage, blasting out one of your favourite tunes next time you’re at a concert.