Setting the Scene for Success: Mental Health Care for Musicians

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”  – Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

Why is addiction, destructive behavior and early-death synonymous with Music and the Performing Arts? Is it a given that the most talented will be the most tortured, and that their deaths from overdose and suicide will be a tolerated event?

According the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study done by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control, almost 2/3 of people have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience, or trauma*. This can be anything from physical, psychological, or sexual abuse to having a parent with untreated mental illness or incarcerated. The study shows a direct correlation between childhood trauma and early death. The progression looks something like this; you go through a traumatic event as a child, which leads to social, emotional, and cognitive problems.  These often times lead to high-risk behaviors such as drug/alcohol use or promiscuous sex (see where this is going?). These high-risk behaviors have a tendency to cause disease, disability, and social problems that ultimately lead to an early death.

Ray Charles was plagued with childhood trauma including the death of a sibling and going blind. Johnny Cash grew up in poverty and had an abusive father. Brian Wilson was hit so hard in the head by his abusive father that he went partially deaf in one ear and later suffered from panic attacks and other mental health issues. Nicki Minaj’s alcoholic father set the family home on fire while her mother was inside. We often see that music is an outlet for having gone through difficult experiences, which in turn leads to the creation of some of the songs we have come to love, but we are left with an industry saturated with people who are already vulnerable to seeking high risk behaviors as a means to cope with mental illness and the effects of trauma.

I do not mean to over generalize and say that all musicians in the music industry struggle with these issues. However, as mentioned before we know that 2/3 of middle-class Americans have childhood trauma. So, it would make sense that this would translate over to the music industry as well. Let’s call this the kindling for a potential wildfire.  One major difference in the music industry, the spark that lights the fire so to speak, is that oftentimes artists are exposed to a plethora of drugs, alcohol, and sex at their fingertips and enter the scene at a very young age, with limited coping skills, social support, isolation, and often find themselves in the middle of an existential crisis.  One of my good friends who toured the country in various bands, often as a supporting band, once told me this; “After you play your show you pack up your gear, talk with fans, sell merch, drive through the night, sometimes in awful weather, sleep in a van, show up to a city hours before your show, unload your trailer, sit around, grab something quick to eat, and play another show. All of this, your entire existence as a supporting artist, revolves around a 25-minute set in front of an audience that has no idea who you are and are counting down the seconds until your set is done because that puts them that much closer to the headliner they are there to see.”

That was depressing, so what do we do?

Thankfully, we have seen a gradual de-stigmatization of mental health treatment over the last decade. People who often suffered in silence can now reach out for support, such as counseling, to help. Trauma, depression, anxiety, substance use, and other mental health concerns can be treated, especially with a healthy mix of counseling and medications. Artists in touring bands should be no different.  However, with such a rigorous touring schedule and demands of the road, a barrier to treatment is distance. Therapists work out of an office and have limited hours. Luckily, in an increasingly digital world, artist can see the same therapist weekly and reach out for skills coaching, via video conferencing and texting. This creates an environment in which the artist gets consistent treatment from one counselor that is conducive to the touring life that many artists live. Life coaches and counselors can work with artists to create self-care plans and healthy boundaries to live their lives on the road while maintaining their mental health.

A call to labels

Record companies should be considering how getting mental health treatment for their artists can be advantageous for all parties. It is a fallacy that drugs and alcohol are implicit in the creative process. Altered states of being may be the means in which some artists are first able to access their talents, but it is incorrect to assume that they are not able to create and perform in a healthy state. Long-term management of a stable mental status will aide in the creative process, substance use issues often lead to a host of problems for labels, booking agents, managers, and venues. If an artist is too loaded or depressed to perform everyone loses. How much money is lost every year by artists unable to fulfill aspects of their job due to substance use and mental health concerns? And sadly, how much beautiful and inspiring music has the world missed out on because of the suicide or death due to mental illness or substance use of artists we love? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Dee Dee Ramone, Michael Jackson, and Prince, just to name a few.  In no other industry would this be allowed to happen. However, as a mental health provider and certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor I am finding that more workplaces are providing counseling as a perk of the job, similar to health insurance. We know that preventative care is far cheaper than addressing the concerns later once symptoms have increased. So, record labels, we call out to you for help. Not only would providing counseling services to your artists be profitable in the long run, it’s simply the right thing to do.


Edited by Jeannie Regan

*These figures were drawn from middle class Americans with health insurance. <>

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