We’re All In This Together: A Discussion About Mental Health In The Music Industry
18 May 2017
The music industry has recently taken major strides in addressing its most shameful secrets; sexism, sexual abuse, misogyny, homophobia and racism have been at the forefront of conversations around the world. And with social media ubiquitous for artists nowadays, several have taken to various platforms to start a discussion around these topics. Though each one of these issues has a long way to go in India, there’s one that seems ever prominent; mental health. It is estimated that by 2020, 20% of young Indians will face some sort of mental health problems, yet we still don’t know how to talk about it.
In Western culture, there appears to be more of a united movement towards the normalisation around the idea of mental illness. Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos described, in detail what it was like to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder; shedding light on a topic unknown to many - even within the music industry. Dubstep pioneer Benga took a two-year sabbatical from music after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - two issues he thinks were either brought on by or masked by his lifestyle as an artist.
Viceland (a subsidiary of Vice) have even started a TV show called 'The Therapist
Central to all of this is the profound difficulty of sustaining a living as a musician. The industry itself contributes towards high levels of anxiety, stress and in many cases given the introspective nature of the work, an inability to plan one's future, the instability of self-employment, late-nights, anti-social hours, exhaustion -- and, crucially, the lack of money.
The lifestyle of some artists centre around late nights and constant travel, a lifestyle that one may mask with drug and alcohol abuse. Rijul Victor, who produces under the moniker Corridors, wrote a heart-wrenching essay about his battles with anxiety and depression where he spoke, at length, about his dependence on alcohol. Over the phone, the artist told us, “there are a lot of things that make me anxious, during a show or before getting on stage - or after a show. Even compliments make me anxious sometimes.”
There’s a certain lifestyle associated with art and creativity, one that could lead to issues developing in someone. Indian music journalist Arjun S Ravi agrees, “being an artist is, by its very nature, an introspective process. It requires you to delve into your own personal influences and experiences.” Rijul expanded on that, “with the competition that is already existing, there is a shit tonne of pressure on you. There’s this constant anxiety to always be better than what you were.”
Freelance journalist Bhanuj Kappal explained, “we know that mental illness has an environmental component and poverty, homelessness etc are major factors. But capitalism brings in a bunch of other triggers - the loneliness that comes from its fixation with individualism, its destruction of community and class solidarity - you know, that sense of just being a tiny cog in a machine. So to live in a capitalist society and to live by its rules leaves you vulnerable to a bunch of mental health issues.“
Creatives, more than any other profession, are expected to ‘work for free’ or do something ‘for experience’. No-one asks surgeons or plumbers to sell their labour for free. In the latter fields, it’s not a rarity when a job description states that it’s paid - and paid well. Creatives seem to be exploited on a consistent basis.
Musicians do find art to be their refuge amongst all of this. It's a way for them to be understood, to spend time with like-minded people. The beauty of music is how it can permeate through class, culture and borders to connect strangers over personal, social and political issues. Musicians make the unknown known, baring themselves to the world on a regular basis. But the very working conditions of forging a musical career are traumatic. Creating art is a double-edged sword; it may be therapeutic but making a career out of it may be destructive to one’s state of mind
What artists put forward is a reflection of their inner mental processes; it’s not just musicians, the same process applies to writers, poets, actors - any sort of creative where the expression of it requires you to channel your innermost feelings and emotions.
And true artists are the ones trying to do something different; the ones who stick out of the herd. An anonymous interviewee stated, “A sincere artist will render him or herself completely vulnerable to an audience, and if they are committed, they will do this on a regular basis. It can be terrifying, but there isn’t any other way to actually change a musical landscape and be honest about one's vision. It takes a toll and can foment anxiety in anyone. Drug abuse, new surroundings, hostile audiences, the absence of trusted peers - all of these things have impacts.”
The instability of the mind can also lead to your very art being affected.
For Bhanuj, that was definitely true: “I've lost editors and opportunities that way because I basically overthought my way into paralysis and never finished the work I was commissioned to do. It’s also exhausting to deal with these issues and all that mental and emotional energy is diverted from your work into just treading water. The quality of my writing has definitely suffered, especially because journalism is so deadline oriented so you can’t give it a couple of weeks till you’re out of the funk.”
But in India, to openly discuss any of these mental health issues is a taboo, arguably even more than sexuality. For Rijul, it was difficult to talk about his issues because “people assume that you’re doing it for some sort of attention or some sort of sympathy.”
Our anonymous interviewee expanded by saying, “a pop culture paying public is often drawn to artists having mental breakdowns on or off stage.”
The stigma around mental illness is much deeper than we perceive it to be - opening up about mental illness isn’t easy. It can be an overwhelming, emotionally draining struggle. More often than not, though, it’s also cathartic.
Bhanuj discussed how physical scars and injuries like a broken leg or cancer are easier to understand and empathise with than a mental illness. He went on to say "it’s amazing the way educated, aware, well-adjusted folk dismiss or talk absolute bollocks about mental health. The number of times I’ve been told to cheer up or stop being a drama queen when I’m feeling low. If you’re grappling with bipolar disorder or body dysmorphic disorder or anything that falls out of that narrow range of meme-friendly issues you’re fucked. Everyone will call you crazy - even the dude sharing depression memes three times a day.”
Despite the apparent normalisation around mental illness stigmas we’re seeing amongst Western musicians willing to start a discussion around it, the data surrounding the topic is next to none.
A recent study undertaken at the University of Westminster in partnership with Help Musicians UK surveyed 2,211 self-identifying professional musicians, working across the UK. It found that 71.1% of respondents believed they had experienced incidents of anxiety and panic. 68.5% of respondents experienced depression.
The majority of respondents felt underserved by available help: 52.7% found it difficult to get help; 54.8% felt there were gaps in the provision of available help. The study claimed, “These early, preliminary findings suggest that music, and by this, we mean working in, or having ambitions to work in, the music industry, might indeed be making musicians sick, or at least contribute towards their levels of mental ill health.”
There is no such data for India.
This is where Kripi and David of Tatva come in. TATVA is an international Anglo-Indian organisation based in Goa that focuses on emotional awareness and wellness. They do this by combining psychotherapy with creative self-expression, travel experiences and nature/eco-therapy with cultural immersion. Over email, they explained, “mental health issues thrive in silence, secrecy and isolation. There is stigma, shame, prejudices and often denial that prevents musicians from seeking help”
itsoktotalk.in is a newly launched initiative by PRIDE, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicinal Medicine (LSHTM), Harvard Medical School and Sangath. It is also the site where Rijul published his essay. Pattie Gonsalves of PHFI helped launch itsoktotalk. She told us that “mental health problems don’t discriminate by age, class or profession and can affect anyone. Audiences like to think of artists or musicians as tortured geniuses and there’s a belief that mental health issues are good for creativity. Distress and creativity don’t go hand-in-hand” Arjun believes that artists, when wanting to talk about it, have a fear that they “may seem weak”.
But, artists need to start talking about. As Bhanuj explained, “We’re all struggling out here.”
Rijul suggested that “you need to acknowledge that you have a problem. If you think that this is a normal thing - it’s not. It’s pretty real." We tend to be so concerned with everyone's validation of us that we forget to prioritise our own mental health. The more all of us start talking about it, the more it will lose its power over us.
After he came out and spoke about his issues, Rijul said he felt more determined with himself. He now goes to two or three of his friends and makes it a point to either meet and talk about what’s going on with him - when he feels he needs help.
For trained psychologists, Kripi and David, they completely agree: “It’s important to acknowledge that they exist and need addressing; especially with the ever increasing pressures of economic sustainability, self-doubt, insecurity about the future, and societal expectations of making it big and/or not being good enough. All the passion and dedication to the art will stay incomplete if the same passion and dedication isn't afforded to the self; the artist/musician. Minimising, self-medicating [drugs, booze] or wishing it all goes away will not help; however finding the courage to talk about it with others will.”
The creative community may be one of the most welcoming and open hearted communities around when it comes to mental health issues, but musicians do need a reminder that mental health is important and they don’t need to be in a perpetual state of depression or anxiety to make great art. As Kripi said, “they need to be told, ‘your music matters, but so do you.’”
Pattie reiterated the point, “talk about it more. Both, amongst the artist community, with your fans and with audiences. Share your story. Your story could inspire more artists and musicians to come forward and share their own stories, helping to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.The arts are a really powerful way to impact mental health and well-being, especially to raise awareness and begin conversations. We need to build a sensitive community where artists and musicians feel safe and comfortable to talk more openly about their mental health and can support each other. “
Just like a listener can connect with a song, they might connect even more with someone who has been through the experience the artist is talking about. Reassurance that "this is okay" comes in different forms - most days, people just want to know that they're not alone. Connecting through music, through artists can lead to serious, positive change.
And sometimes art can reach where therapy and mental health workers sometimes can't. Pattie believes that "the connection audiences have with certain musicians transcends that of normalcy; at times, it can be god-like, so for more artists to publicly talk about this is a good step forward."
Everyone also needs to remember that it's a case-by-case basis. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution so whatever has worked for Rijul, Bhanuj or countless others may not for you - and that's okay. But the best thing to do is start talking about it as soon as you can because as Kripi and David observed, “creatives have a beautiful combination of resilience and vulnerability and we urge them to acknowledge and celebrate it without undermining their struggles and pain.”
Apart from offering online, in-person and residential psychotherapy and counselling to artists TATVA is one of the only mental health and emotional wellness organisations in the world that offers therapeutic residencies specifically for artists. "We do so because we truly understand the importance of a dedicated and specialised space for artists to explore their inner selves and develop their work without being stigmatised, labelled or otherwise reduced." TATVA are always available via Facebook or email and would love it for more and more artists to reach out.
Its Ok To Talk:
A website that offers a space for young people to voice their thoughts and emotions about their mental health or challenges they might be facing. This platform aims to build a community for mental health through diverse stories. The best way that an artist or musician can get involved is by sharing their own story. "Our stories can help us help each other."
Words: Dhruva Balram
Image credit: (thumb + main) Quicksand and Bhanavi Arora via It's Ok To Talk, (article images) Amaaya Dasgupta via It's Ok To Talk