We’re living in an age of anxiety. We’re overstimulated and constantly presented with a full spectrum of choices from the moment we wake up until we finally close our eyes. In the digital age, loneliness, social needs, and instant acceptance are even more emphasized, which makes us more vulnerable than ever. While musicians are not the only ones struggling with mental health problems, the toughness of the music industry makes them more prone to having issues. We had a chat with mental health professional and research scientist Joe Barnby to discuss the problematic situation of mental health in the music industry and what we can actually do to improve it.
Since you have unique experiences both as a musician and as a mental health scientist, you were a vital part of Record Union’s expert panel for The 73 Percent initiative. What were the biggest challenges and what was most rewarding about taking part in the campaign?
The biggest challenge is trying to make decisions on funding in an industry where there is very little direct evidence. I needed to access my knowledge of mental health from other fields and apply them in a new direction. This was really fun and highly rewarding when I could hear the perspectives of those in other industries. I am really glad we chose to invest some of the money into research and education as these are vital to progress basic standards of mental health awareness in an industry that historically may have turned a blind eye.
Why do you think it took so much time to get to this point where the industry has finally noticed the elephant in the room and started discussing the importance of mental health?
Unfortunately, I personally think a combination of high-profile public suicides and accounts of mental illness and stigmatization of mental health in other areas of our culture. It is a shame however that it had to get to this point.
Why do you think there’s such a stigma associated with mental health?
Personally, I think it’s a combination of historical events and our association of mental health with our identity and what we might consider ‘me’, although more evidence is needed to make firm conclusions. Previous generations had a lot of political hardships that meant there wasn’t a huge focus on what you were feeling. It might then have been passed down the generations, and probably thought of as a quality of ‘weakness’ in general society
I think when we talk about mental health, it always feels like we’re talking about the ground root of who we are, which makes us a bit more sensitive. A lot of people get the feeling that telling someone you’re not feeling that great or you’re feeling unwell might communicate that you are broken. Then there’s the real fear that you could lose your stability and social support if your friends, family, or job don’t quite understand.
What do you think differentiates the music makers from other creative artists when it comes to mental health? These issues are obviously prevalent in creative industries but the music industry seems to be almost infamous for mental health problems.
There is no good evidence at the moment to suggest that mental illness in musicians is expressed any more than, for example, ballet dancers. Saying that, any environment that encourages high stress, high criticism, little pay, and poor sleep is bad for your mental health. In the general population, between around 25-30% of people are at risk of developing mental illness in their lifetime. We don’t know if that’s any more or less in the music industry. But since artists who do well are more publicized, it’s more obvious. There are some things about the music industry that might not be conducive to good mental health either, but these are general principles that you can find in the general population as well.
How does one know if they do have a tendency to develop mental illnesses?
It’s tough to predict whether you will develop a mental illness, but as with all illnesses, it’s a combination of psychological, social, and biological risk factors. It can be very evident from family history, siblings, and close relatives with mental illness. For example, people with parents who have suffered from depression might be more vulnerable. The same goes for any health condition really, like having high blood pressure. Likewise, your habits and social environment have a huge part to play. For example, if we were to say your risk of developing high blood pressure is larger because your mother had high blood pressure, with healthy eating and good exercise, you might not develop anything that looks like a clinical problem. The same applies to mental illness. You might be at risk of developing depression, but if you had a supportive social environment it might never become something that requires clinical support.
What do you think happens mentally between the moment when someone starts out making music for fun, but then it turns into something else? Play becomes work and fun turns into misery when the pressure is on, when we really want to prove ourselves.
I think a big challenge is to start financially relying on your music because it can be really stressful knowing that your success to keep going and writing depends on your music and shows selling. Alongside this, the heavy criticism and constant doubt over whether your music is any good can really eat away at you. Having no real schedule can also mean the line between work and play is really distorted, and this can mean not allowing yourself enough time away from your music to relax, sleep, and think about something else. Both of these pressures are also true of being a scientist!
What do you think the music industry’s responsibilities are and should be when it comes to the artists’ mental health?
I think wanting to nurture an artist in the long term will inevitably mean looking after their mental health in the present and investing financially in their development. The industry should provide good education and support to its artists, which will inevitably include better financial security. Most importantly, more research is crucial to really understand how we might predict situations where mental health might deteriorate.
Regarding education and people having a lack of empathy, not really understanding what mental illness is because they have not experienced it… Are there any signs and symptoms that a parent, a friend, a loved one might see and recognize?
It depends on what mental illness we’re talking about and also can vary massively from person to person. In general, if someone feels out of touch, goes quiet, becomes more irritable, or seems more stressed than usual, it’s a good time to ask them if everything’s alright. A little kindness goes a lot further than you’d think. Often the biggest lie that our mental illness tells us is that no one cares. Then you feel like a burden. If you ask, often you find that people do want to talk about it. If you’re really worried about someone the most important thing to do is to see a registered healthcare professional, or call NHS 111 and seek advice. There’s no harm in doing that.
Substance abuse and addiction often go hand in hand with mental health problems. For example, aspiring bands who get to play in bars and small venues, often get free drinks or are being paid in drink tickets. How can one keep a healthy balance from the beginning to avoid the downward spiral?
Obviously, as long as you’re not drinking to excess and constantly, having fun at bars isn’t a bad thing. Saying that, the science suggests that alcohol is toxic to your body and can increase the risk of a range of illnesses. However, I think being paid in drink tickets highlights a larger issue: younger and less established musicians are often not paid enough. Giving musicians money for their performances is crucial if we’re to encourage other people in the same industry and to give financial support to continue living a healthy, nourishing lifestyle. It will only make the industry more exciting and creative.
Are there any kind of clear first steps that someone who might be struggling can take?
It might be useful to first talk to those closest to you about what you’re going through. This might be scary, but in no way is your experience your fault or a sign that you’re broken. If you don’t want to do this, or if you have talked to someone close to you and you want support, it might be then good to go and see your GP or access a mental health support service that will be able to best advise you where to go for help or which professional would be most useful. It might also help to go online and take a look at some forums written by other people who struggle so you realize you’re not alone, or what others do to manage their experiences.
The most important thing you can do to support someone who is struggling is to be kind, listen, and be non-judgemental.
There’s something that gets more into deeper, murky waters when it comes to human psychology: we feel entertained by people who are on the extremes. Kanye is an often-used example, he’s got everyone’s attention and labels see dollar signs.
This is a very complex consideration as it can be really therapeutic to make art out of your suffering, but if that becomes exploited by another entity then it can be a problem. I think it’s the artist’s choice to make it their identity or not. If there’s consent from the artist about using their suffering as a way to move forward with their career that’s their decision. If it’s without consent it becomes a real problem and is capitalizing on the vulnerability of another person.
Our new initiative, The Wellness Starter Pack is based on our findings from The 73 Percent study, where a lot of artists shared a selection of 5-10 things they wish they had more of in their lives. Why do you think the quality of mental health can be improved by such a broad spectrum of things rather than a single silver bullet?
The human condition is incredibly complex and affected by our psychology, our biology, and our social environment. Eating properly can affect our mood. Sleeping right can affect our mood. Having healthy social contact can affect how we are day to day. There are so many different things that can nudge our health this way or that and might accumulate into an illness, and each person will have their own story. Focusing on one thing alone will never solve everything for everyone, and so lots of different perspectives and solutions mean that everyone might be able to take something away to manage or improve their health.
If you could give 3 practical tips to musicians that they could implement in their everyday lives, to take off the edge and practice self-care more consciously, what would those be?
Joe Barnby is a doctoral researcher at King’s College in London, researching the neuroscience and psychology of belief and delusion formation. He holds a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Science and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with Neuroscience. Joe is also a research scientist at a mental health technology company and is frequently giving talks on mental health and neuroscience.
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