Music is good for our health, so why are musicians suffering so much?

From Zayn Malik and Lady Gaga to Charli XCX and Stormzy, some of the world’s biggest artists have struggled with mental health. Roisin O’Connor wants to know what the industry is doing to help. source: THE INDEPENDENT

“Music was my refuge,” the writer Maya Angelou once said. “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

It’s a neat way of summing up the powerful impact music can have on our mental state. Indeed, its ability to soothe our troubled minds has been explored for centuries.

Greek physicians used instruments such as lyres and zithers to help heal their patients, while Aristotle believed that flute music could arouse strong emotions and “purify the soul”. In Italy, celebrated castrato singer Farinelli was employed at the Spanish Court for 10 years, where he sang to King Philip V after his wife, Queen Elisabetta Farnese, suggested the musician’s voice might have the power to cure his depression. When President Nixon had trouble sleeping, he apparently liked to play Rachmaninov’s piano concertos at “ear-splitting volume”.

In the 21st century, research suggests there is a connection between music and its effect on various illnesses. Studies have shown it to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce levels of stress hormones. Research conducted in 2005 by the University of Windsor in Canada, meanwhile, showed that music could improve cognitive function.

And yet the health of many artists and other music professionals is dire.

It’s easy to understand how sudden fame, or a lifestyle built around creating music and live shows, could lead to drug and alcohol abuse, or even cause serious health issues. Lady Gaga told The Mirror in 2016 that she has blocked out the memory of rising to fame: “It’s like I’m traumatised,” she said. “I needed time to recalibrate my soul.”

Zayn Malik, who overnight became one of the most talked-about people on the planet after One Direction came second on the 2010 series of The X Factor, has anxiety so severe that it has forced him to cancel several solo tours. Two years ago, he wrote a first-person account in his book, Zayn, which addressed the multiple issues that fame had either caused or exacerbated.

“When I was in One Direction, my anxiety issues were huge, but within the safety net of the band, they were at least manageable,” he said. “As a solo performer, I felt much more exposed, and the psychological stress of performing had just got to be too much for me to handle – at that moment, at least.”

Even just the act of trying to break into the industry can be so stressful that it can have a massive impact on an artist’s health. Today, Nicki Minaj is regarded as one of the best rappers around, but in 2011, she recalled to Cosmopolitan how she had suffered from suicidal thoughts after being turned away time and time again.

“I kept having doors slammed in my face,” she said. “I felt like nothing was working. I had moved out on my own, and here I was thinking I’d have to go home. It was just one dead end after another. At one point, I was like, ‘What would happen if I just didn’t wake up?’ That’s how I felt.”

Her experience is all too common. “The industry is brutally competitive and only a very few make it to a successful career,” says Peter Leigh, CEO of the charity Key Changes, which provides music engagement and recovery services in hospitals and communities for young people and adults affected by depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental health disorders.

“Some of the triggering factors of the problems we see in the music community include self doubt and stress brought about by rejection and failure, poor decision making based on bad advice and exploitation. The fact that record sales peak immediately after an artist’s death is an illustration of the often callous power of the media and the market.”

Serious discussion about how we deal with mental health in the music industry was sparked by a detailed survey published by Help Musicians, the leading independent UK music charity, in 2014. It was found that 60 per cent of musicians had struggled with their mental health, whereas the overall figure in the UK is 25 per cent. In that same study, 68 per cent said they struggled with loneliness or separation from family and friends, and a staggering 75 per cent of musicians said they had experienced performance anxiety.

Fans may wonder what musicians are talking about when they discuss the pressures of live shows. They look like they’re having fun – what’s the problem? Yet scientific evidence shows how the “fight or flight” response is very likely to kick in during a high-pressure situation such as a gig, where a singer is positioned facing hundreds or even thousands of people who are staring right at them. For some, this can lead to a better performance due to the heightened state of awareness and adrenaline rush it causes. For others, it can cause panic attacks or even memory loss, which can lead to long-term anxiety about live shows.

Even in the past few weeks, musicians have shared stories about their issues with mental health. Ben Gregory, frontman of the British indie band Blaenavon, revealed last week that he suffered a stress-related breakdown after “an incredibly hectic and difficult 2017”, and was admitted to hospital before Christmas that year.

“I’m proud and thankful for being able to overcome it,” Gregory said in a statement on Twitter, where he thanked his bandmates and label for supporting him during the difficult period. “I’m now the happiest I’ve been in years: not drinking, exercising, feeling healthy and positive about the future.”

Last year, Demi Lovato was admitted to hospital for a suspected drug overdose but has since been in recovery and often shares updates on her wellbeing with fans. Even before then, Lovato – who has bipolar disorder – had been a huge advocate for mental health care and has even featured free mental health counselling sessions at her concerts.

“There’s a new breed of pop artists such as Lovato and Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander who aren’t afraid of talking about mental health,” says Leigh. “Ironically the most powerful impact on mental health awareness within music tends to come after the death of an artist – such as Avicii, Prince, George Michael, etc. One of the most long-lasting legacies has been the Amy Winehouse Foundation set up by Amy’s family which has created many amazing opportunities for young people – we’re really grateful for their gift of a recording studio for our charity that’s helped hundreds of artists achieve their goal of making great music with industry professionals.”

Charli XCX is one of several high-profile artists who have been open about their struggles with anxiety. Back in 2014, in an interview with The Guardian, she spoke about how panic would arise when she was writing with an artist she hadn’t worked with before. Earlier this month, she summed up the exasperation that comes with such a debilitating issue, tweeting: “F*** anxiety f*** anxiety f*** anxiety f***.”

She followed this up with a slightly more nuanced comment: “Anxiety always hits me when I least expect it and it’s so explosive and really just flips my world inside out. I know loads of people can relate. I think it’s good to talk about / normalise / be honest.”



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