Blog: Mental Health in the Music Industry (Mike Sturgis: Head of Education)

This week DIME ONLINE has been celebrating Wellness Week. Each day, students have recieved an online bulletin packed with resources, articles, app reviews and advice on subjects from mindfulness and meditation, to nutrition and fitness. We’ve also quizzed our instructors and team for their words of wisdom on wellness topics from meal planning to the Alexander Technique. We wrap up Wellness Week today with a focus on the particular mental health challenges faced by musicians. In the second of our Head of Education authored blogs, Mike Sturgis provides his own insight on the subject and offers some words of advice for anyone suffering. 

Mike Sturgis DrumsI don’t know how many times people have said to me how lucky I am to be doing what I love for a living – that is, being a musician and being connected with music industry. They sometimes talk about their own unfulfilled dreams in music and if only they had ‘kept going’ when taking their piano/guitar/singing lessons when they were younger. There is a genuine sense of regret that they have missed out on something special in their life and could have perhaps had a musical career themselves if they had persevered and/or had more support when needed from family and friends.

Hearing this brings up some conflicting thoughts within me. Firstly, I am in agreement with them – I’ve had an amazing time over the years with music and it would be impossible to put a price on it. I will never regret making the choice to be a musician and it is something that I hope I’m able to do for the rest of my life. However, there is another side of being an artist/musician that isn’t quite as positive and that is how vulnerable we can be to mental health issues.

Why is mental health an issue for musicians?

While making music can be incredibly fulfilling and even be a great source of comfort and solace, musicians are often emotionally sensitive people full of creative highs and lows who live with the (often) daunting proposition of trying to make a career from their talent. Some of the reasons for this in no particular order are:

  • The competitiveness of the industry
  • The precarious nature of the work
  • Working long hours, often for low pay
  • Travel and time away from family and friends
  • Identification with our talent/art and how this can affect our psyche

There may be more, but you get the general idea. The life of a musician can be a tough one even though you’re doing the thing you love. Perhaps primarily because it’s so important to us is the reason we’re vulnerable to the feelings of anxiety, depression, insecurity and loneliness that a being a music professional can trigger. Dr. George Musgrave and Sally Gross recently conducted a study called “Can Music Make You Sick?” which contained a survey of 2,211 self-identifying professional musicians in the UK. They uncovered the following facts from their surveys:

  • 71.1% of respondents believed they had experienced incidences of anxiety and panic attacks
  • 68.5% of respondents experienced incidences of depression
  • Musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.

How can we mitigate this?

It’s a huge subject that’s impossible to cover briefly; having had my own challenges in this area I believe that recovery is best facilitated through a multi-faceted approach. It was a combination of things that helped me out to climb out of a very dark hole. Firstly, basic lifestyle choices are fundamental – eating right (and knowing what that means), getting enough sleep, avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs and exercising sensibly all should be examined and adhered to. It’s also really important to talk frequently about your feelings (however difficult that may be) with supportive, non-judgmental family members, friends, and ideally a professionally trained counsellor. Additionally, medication, as prescribed and managed by an understanding general practitioner, can stabilise a chemical imbalance in the brain and play a key role in a holistic approach to wellness.

Another powerful tool in dealing with mental health issues is mindfulness meditation. The basic logic of meditation is simple; that is, the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life. Changing how you respond to the world (and our life circumstances) is often as good as changing the world. Meditation helps us to examine how we often identify with thoughts and therefore helps us to avoid reactive responses that cause needless suffering for ourselves and others. This can be profoundly liberating if you understand it deeply; while it doesn’t necessarily stop negative thoughts and feelings from coming, it can be a powerful tool in making sure that they don’t stay around so long and in not believing them when they do.

External circumstances of course still matter; however, it is the quality of your mind, and not the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life. Meditation asks that you simply pay close attention to the flow of your experience in each passing moment, including the rising of the thoughts themselves.  There is nothing spooky or religious about it; there’s much to draw from if you’re new to the concept of meditation, but I recommend the work Jon Kabat Zinn and Sam Harris to help you get started.

Looking forward

There is now a much greater openness and transparency within the musical community of mental health awareness and efforts to destigmatize it. This recent article following the death of Prodigy singer Keith Flint gives insightful accounts from some artists brave enough to tell their tale.

There are also some great organisations out there that support musicians wrestling with these issues such as Help Musicians UK and the Atlanta-based Hip Hop Professional Foundation, both of whom are doing amazing work. For a look at more organisations like them, click here.

As I said at the start, there’s far too much on this subject to cover in a single blog, unless it stretched in to something the size of War and Peace. However, I hope that if you’re suffering that you know that you’re not alone; in fact, it’s just the opposite. There’s help out there and other people like you, so please don’t do this one on your own. You might also find that you get the opportunity to be a person that others can lean on, which you’ll find feels pretty good.