Mental Health Issues in Music:
What Can We Do?
THE recent death of Soundgarden’s lead…
IN THIS PHOTO: Chris Cornell/PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Halfin Photography
is not only haunting due to the tender years (fifty-two) of Chris Cornell but the reason behind it: suicide by hanging. Having performed a successful gig in Detroit, a few hours after departing the stage, he was found dead in his hotel room.
The reasons behind it are unknown but many are still reeling.
Someone who seemed contended and pumped to perform such a gig – his band were recording new material and planning tour dates – would be the last you’d imagine to take their own life. Maybe that social media expression of happiness was a mask that disguised a troubled soul who could not unburden his depression and fears. It seems extraordinary that someone so influential and wonderful should leave us but Cornell’s death leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
One has to wonder whether anyone knew about Cornell’s depression and whether his suicide was the result of psychological demons. Perhaps there were indications in the lead-up that were missed; that last gig: would anyone have noticed anything, however subtle, that indicated what was to come? From performing that final track to be being discovered it was, as stated, a mere few hours. That seems an extraordinarily quick time to go from (seeming) elation to committing suicide. What happened between leaving the venue and that horrible moment?!
Rather than dredge-up a lot of speculation and disturbing scenarios; it gets me thinking about the rate of mental illness in music and how destructive it is.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Of course, we are told that one-in-four will, at some point in their life, experience a mental health issue. I have stated many times that statistic is very flattering and underwhelming: I would say at least twice that number go through psychological turmoil in their life. Depression and anxiety are easily definable and takes very little provocation to occur. To say a mere quarter of us are subject to this is plainly not true.
Of all the people I know, the vast majority of them have gone through mental health problems – that is not simply me hand-picking company similar to me.
Chris Cornell’s suicide highlights how urgent and troubling the mental health epidemic is. To be fair, since the earliest Soundgarden albums, we would have known Cornell was wrestling with depression. His lyrics honestly and bravely confessed so it is not a shock to discover he would, even this many years down the line, find himself scarred and affected by psychological issues. The problem I have is the fact he got to a stage where his darkest thoughts were disguised behind professionalism, uplift and a seeming façade. It is not his fault, obviously, but I wonder whether musicians are not only having to cover-up their mental health issues but more vulnerable to it. In an age where social media is replacing human contact: is the issue going to exacerbate and breed?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Kurt Cobain, who famously struggled with depression through his life
It appears mental health is more widely-discussed and visible than years past but are we, as a generation, hindering progress and remedy? I mention musicians because, compared to many other industries, they seem to be the most susceptible. Perhaps long hours and the sheer demands of the business are burning many people out – causing undue and unwarranted stress and leading to increased suicides and self-harm. The statistics speak for themselves:
“Deaths from suicide in the UK rose slightly from 6,122 deaths in 2014 to 6,188 deaths in 2015 with a subsequent increase in the rate from 10.8 to 10.9 deaths per 100,000 population.
UK male suicide rate decreases whilst female rate increases to its highest rate in a decade.
England and Scotland saw decreases in the total number of suicides, whilst Wales and Northern Ireland saw increases.
Of the English regions, Yorkshire and The Humber had the highest suicide rate at 11.6 deaths per 100,000 population and the East of England had the lowest at 9.3 deaths per 100,000.
Across all broad age groups, the rate for males was around 3 times higher than females.
The most common method of suicide amongst males and females in the UK in 2015 was hanging”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga, who has opened up about her mental health issues in the past
Those statistics give a snapshot of the issue and a breakdown of genders/areas where suicide is more common. In music, it is hard to say which gender/area suffers most from a high suicide rate but one suspects it broadly follows the national pattern. In terms of my experience, I am seeing more women reveal mental ill-health and suicides seem highest among males – in terms of area, those who reside in cities are most exposed and seem affected greatest by mental unrest.
That is, perhaps, not surprising, but one wonders why we are seeing an unabated rise? I suspect the reason behind this is the changing nature of music and lack of governmental support.
On that first point, there is more pressure on musicians than ever to achieve and succeed. It is not just as simple – which I will explore in a feature over the weekend – to release an album, do a few gigs and move on to the next project. Now, one has to undergo a rigorous promotional campaign and ensure weeks of interviews, gigs and restlessness. I know, as a journalist, I am part of the problem and many musicians love that side of things.
My point is just HOW hard they have to work in order to get their music heard. I guess increased numbers and open borders means anyone can get into music and join the scene. Because of increased competition, the average musician has to find ways of differentiating themselves from their peers. Often, this can be a relentless pounding of the toilet circuit or a brutal series of interviews: they might release music more regularly or have to find ever-original ways of making their music stand out. One might argue this helps build a stronger and more rounded artist but, in reality, how much downtime are they getting?! I will move away from Chris Cornell soon but he is not the first musician, I know, to commit suicide.
It has been a sad realisation for many decades: no matter how successful and popular an artist is; they are not immune to mental health struggles.
Cornell is the perfect example of that. Someone who was in the midst of a tour and looking ahead to new recordings – why would they suddenly decide not to be part of the world anymore?!
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
I feel the real truth behind Cornell’s death is very complicated and not motivated by a single decision or brief time period. Having suffered from depression since he got into music, I am saddened now, in his fifties, it reached its apex. It got me thinking whether something outside of music – family or personal problems – affected him or was it the demands and pressures put on him as a musician? I feel the rise and development of technology have not been entirely helpful for musicians.
Sure, it is easy and quick sharing material and reaching millions: the boom of social media makes music more accessible than it has ever been. That can only be a good thing but, behind this, there are some problems.
A lot of music is now free which means music is less a career and more a hobby. Because sites like YouTube and Spotify allow free downloads; many artists have to take on more gigs in order to make a little money. Take that further and we are seeing so many bands/artists wearing themselves to the bone. The effort and energy needed for a single gig can be exhausting: multiply that by dozens/hundreds a year and what does that do to a soul?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Lana Del Rey, who, alongside many of her peers, has suffered mental health issues
Even if you have a few days off here and there, the preparation and planning does not stop – the musician is always having to work and keep active. Those who are afforded too much rest and contemplation fear seeing someone younger and fitter gain some of their marketshare. This strange Survival of the Fittest evolution in music is good for quality and productivity but what about the human being?! The greater the population numbers, naturally, the greater number of musicians. Maybe we are, by being procreating humans, causing an issue without realising it.
I feel technology and social media is heightening an issue without offering any solution and support.
We all hear about cyber bullying and how (social media) many take their own lives because of how easy it is to connect with someone – any person, anywhere, can send a message or Tweet to any user. In music terms, we are hearing music but seldom see the people behind it.
IN THIS PHOTO: Selena Gomez, who has revealed her struggles with anxiety and depression
So much emphasis is placed on social media and online demands, I wonder whether that is not only replacing human connectivity but means a musician is becoming a ghost in the machine. Apply that logic to suicidality and is it easier, therefore, to overlook signs of distress because we are not seeing the face of an artist? What I mean is they might provide a, seemingly, happy status or photo but that might be covering up a cry for help. So many people post so many updates/photos; would we, without meaning to, miss something quite alarming and stark without realising it?! It is so easy to be buried in the metropolis of social media: we are more concerned with ‘likes’ and popularity than we are our fellow-man. For a musician, so much of their life relies on putting out promotional snippets and new music.
If they were to post a video or feature that explained how unwell or unhappy they were; how many people would view that?
I guarantee a glossy music video for a mainstream artist would get more hits/feedback than the same artist posting a video verbalising their meant health issues.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Even established and successful artists, as we have seen, are subject to the downsides of modern music. One wonders, were an artist to deliver more face-to-face interviews and perform fewer gigs; would they be less prone to mental health issues and feel more likely to confide in someone?
It is hard to discern whether someone is TRULY okay in a written interview: with so many artists SO busy; they are often bottling up depressions and anxieties and that is leading to BIG problems.
I fully support social media and how beneficial it is to an artist. One cannot deny how much easier it is to discover new music and recruit a large number of supporters. I do wonder whether social media is like a city: people are going about their day and too busy to stop and talk. If someone stood in the streets of London and was distressed: how many people would stop and take notice? In a way, that is how the technological revolution is affecting people: it is so easy for someone to slip through the cracks and be forgotten. I will look at ways we can try to combat this but will move on to look at other sides of music.
It is hard to say why an individual would suffer depression and whether it is for a simple reason. Sometimes, it can be sparked by a relationship break-up but, in other people, it can be down to a series of events and reasons.
It is hard to detect depression and anxiety in a lot of people but even if it is it more obvious, how do we unravel the problem and find ways to combat it?
Many who commit suicide or engage in self-harm show no outward signs of depression or cover their emotions through fear of seeming weak and ‘a burden’. Many people get into music to help channel their mental health issues into something creative. The flip-side of that is, because of the huge numbers of mentally ill, it means there are so many others doing the same thing and in direct competition. Musicians are, largely, a friendly bunch but festival spaces and success is limited to a select few. I worry there is too much pressure put on an artist – whether new or mainstream – and it can often be worse the higher up the ladder you are. Even if you front a mega-successful band, you cannot rest on your laurels and hand-pick gigs and take lots of time off. The sheer commitment and physicality needed to sustain a career is seeing many succumb to depression and stress.
IN THIS PHOTO: Chris Cornell
An artist might have a different persona on stage than they do before/after a gig. There is that need to be professional and hunker down: give it all to the crowds and smile for interviews.
When they are in private; a very different and more ‘human’ being will come out.
I maintain mental health issues are complicated and there is no quick-fix but debate whether the state of affairs is irreversible. Depression and psychological problems are not a sign of weakness but I wonder whether the sheer number of musicians suffering means it is hard to control the spread. The government says it is pledging money and time tackling the pandemic (in society) but one wonders whether they will and if money alone is sufficient. I worry, hearing so many musicians struggle against mental health stigma, we need to create better education and awareness; put less pressure on them and a network that means it is easier for them to talk and seek help.
In wider society, there are great mental health charities like Mind and SANE who offer continuous support to people; run big events and are battling to fight the fire.
Many musicians have that pressure on them to succeed and become popular. Often, there is an emphasis put on image and the look of an artist. They must, in spite of everything, be cheery and go to interviews; keep releasing music and spend every waking hour promoting themselves. Often, personal lives and relationships are strained which puts increased pressure on the person. Before you know it, they are finding themselves on the precipices of a breakdown – or a lot worse in many cases! I feel we need to put less reliance on social media and take some of the pressure off of an artist. I know that could mean a downturn in their career but a human life is more important than streaming figures and social media ‘likes’. So many are mindlessly attuning themselves to the machine-led promotional juggernaut they are spending more time in front of a screen than they are outside.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
We all know how beneficial exercise and socialising can be but I see few musicians who have the time to do that. Because of this, we are fostering an incubator of stressed and overworked minds that are leaving themselves exposed to the brutal bite of mental health.
Behind the makeup and smiles of modern music’s demands lies a real human who does not want to walk through life struggling with mental health issues.
Is there a way we can alleviate demands on a musician and provide them more ready help and therapy? The waiting lists for counselling and psychiatrists can be long and many do not get the help they deserve. While one should ALWAYS see a doctor and do their best to address their issues; a lot of times, that can be ineffective or subject to a huge wait. Maybe we can get some short-term relief but what about life-long well-being?
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Rather than bury cases like Cornell’s into the archives – lest we upset ourselves too much contemplating his final minutes – we must use it as a wake-up sign and alarm. For a start, there needs to be that twin-attack of eradicating ignorance and promoting openness. Many still see mental illness as something you can ‘get over’. The number of times I have been told to snap out of it and cheer up is enough to make me want to go on a murderous rampage. Many, mainly those who never go through it, feel depression and anxiety are things all in the mind and the fault of the sufferer. It is much more complicated than that and we never choose depression: it is attracted to us and is a relentless and needy stalker. Simply ‘getting over it’ is not going to happen with some fresh air and a few good days. Overturning this culture of ignorance and insincerity, in a chain reaction, will lead to greater understanding and promote dialogue.
If we make it easier for people to discuss their problems that will take away a lot of the sting and stigma.
The number of musicians I have spoken to who put on a brave face and simply close themselves off – fearing they would be judged and too vulnerable were they to speak up – is heart-breaking. The sheer number of musicians with mental health problems makes it impossible to know how deep the issue is and how to tackle it – there is no cover-all approach and one fix for everyone.
IMAGE CREDIT: Unsplash
Given the magnitude of the problem, we need to make it less stressful and upsetting for an artist to talk about their problems without being ignored or patronised. It is harrowing revealing just how horrifying a problem can be but we need to free the stigma and avoid needless deaths. For a start, we need to utilise social media for good and find some way of building a network musicians can feel safe in and find that instant support. I know, hard as it is, most musicians will spend a lot of their professional life at a laptop. That being the case, putting something on social media – or a new site – that brings musicians together so they can meet/share their experiences would be a positive step. Of course, one must accompany that with medical support and plenty of human interaction. In a strange way, that digital presence and forum could be a catalyst a musician needs. If they feel there is a sanctuary they can be open and naked; that, in turn, will make it easier to be as candid to their loved ones and professionals.
We need to, first, make the day-to-day reality of music far less exhausting and pressuring.
I am not sure what this is but returning to older, less full-on methods of promotion and work is the way forward – I will go into this more in another piece. Essentially, ensuring an artist is tirelessly decorating their life simply to get their music HEARD – rather than successful and shared – is not helping anyone.
My great ambition – among many – is creating an online viral/event that bandies musicians and musical; bodies together BUT combines that with real-life interaction and togetherness.
The army of artists that suffer mental health issues is staggering but, often, there is depersonalisation and compartmentalisation.
Of course, there will be thousands of artists around California who go through the daily fatigue of depression but how would I know about it?! Social media is great if you know what you are looking for, and where to look, but cannot effectively organise itself so we get the chance to reach people who truly need it. Among the endless parade of crap photos, inane statuses and stupid videos: there are people out there who feel their thoughts will get buried among an avalanche of banality and stupidity. I am not sure what the hashtag would be but would unite all the mental health charities around the world and, more importantly, every artist who has to go through mental health problems. That is a sky-scraping feat of logistics and organisation but there is now, more than ever, a desperate need to control the problem and control the number of fatalities we are seeing. Maybe an online site/group that makes it easier to deal with stress and strains of music might not have saved Cornell but one imagines there will be many it will help.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
By making it easier – for a population that spend a lot of their time online – to productively spend that time dealing with their health is a good thing. Of course, there is that potential we are encouraging too much Internet use and the artist would still need to spend time online dealing with their music.
That is so, but, I would not suggest we increase Internet use but find a balance between social media and this idea – less on the former and a good amount of time here.
The project would not be complex but a multi-strand idea that would offer an open (moderated) and safe space for people all around the world to chat – via Skype or messaging – and reach out. There would be a chance to share music and share stories. Essentially, if things got so bad someone considered taking their life: not only would it be easier to reveal that but people out there – including an alert that would go to the police and mental health charities – to do something about it.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
It is impossible to eradicate mental health issues but we can limit them and control its spread. If we could get a site together that offers some form of discussion, help and understanding that would be instrumental in getting people talking about their problems and seeking help before it is too late. Of course, we do not want to encourage more insularity and computer use – sacrificing the outside world and human connection. Alongside the online support would be tabs/pages that would give links to events and gigs musicians could attend; a yearly festival/event that brings together musicians who suffer mental health problems and promote forums/talks that highlight psychological issues and encourages a strong and defiant community.
There are few images more upsetting than a human being, alone, considering how they will spend their final moments on this planet.
Those who take their own life do not do it lightly but predominantly do it alone and scared.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
There is, however unlikely, a logic behind their decision that could be avoided (in a lot of cases). Sometimes, a person wants to die and it does not matter what we do but I feel there are so many people who take their own lives because they feel hopeless and out of options. Making their voices heard and being there for them seems a Herculean task but it needs to be done.
Music is an industry that is seeing more and more of its patrons reveal mental health issues.
It is that bittersweet business that provides a means of revealing issues and turning depression/anxiety into creative sounds – on the other hand, music is a business and can be a hugely stressful and lonely one.
IMAGE CREDIT: Unsplash
We need to create something that takes stigma out of the sting; brings artists together so they can talk without judgement and explore every option possible – so they never get to that bleak, final stage. If it takes high-profile deaths and huge shockwaves to provoke this then that is, sadly, the sacrifice we must make. We cannot see so many musicians go through bleak times and take their own lives. It is unacceptable and, in many cases, avoidable. Chris Cornell’s death has not only baffled and stunned many but raised questions: was he ignored and felt powerless?
Such a huge figure and titanic voice has a soul and heart like all of us – one that felt alone and fragile.
It is harrowing speculating what was in his mind moments before he committed suicide but, out of this, is the determination not to let it happen again. We often think those famous and rich would be okay and not subject to mental health issues. I have seen many comments about Cornell that revolved around his fame, wealth and family: why would someone privileged and adored turn their back on hope?
IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has battled mental health issues throughout his career
The problem is, it does not matter how successful and beloved you: sometimes, no matter what you have cannot compensate for the strains and cruelty of depression. Money and fame are no substitute for happiness and can, a lot of times, cause a lot of problems and strains.
The sheer pressure to seem happy and fulfilled can affect those high-profile musicians hugely.
Music is a community and, as such, needs to protect its own. The government needs to do their part and there needs to be a more joined-up and logical interaction between mental health charities, musicians and the government. Not only so those in power can see the true extent of the issue but making it easier for those who need help to get it without feeling weak and burdening. If we can do that, and do it quickly, it will make music…
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
A happier place for everyone.