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The Noisey Guide To Music and Mental Health

How Can the Music Industry Fix Its Mental Health Problem?

We put Olly Alexander from Years & Years and the chairman of the leading British music charity on the phone together and got them to thrash it out.

af Daisy Jones
20 maj 2016, 12:00pm

This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health' (in association with Help Musicians UK).You can read more from this series right here, and follow 'Mental Health Awareness Week' on Twitter here.

This week on Noisey, we’ve been focusing all of our resources on exploring mental health in the music industry. In doing so, we’ve presented some stark, personal, and illuminating stories from those within the business. We’ve heard about how sudden fame can exacerbate depression, how a lifestyle of endless gigs can make way for drug and alcohol abuse, how performance anxiety can roadblock an artist’s career, how disastrous record deals can change lives, and how the industry itself is often unequipped to help those who are dealing with mental distress. These problems aren’t just prevalent among the high profile artists we know and love, but are entrenched in every layer, from the jobbing musicians trying to piece together a demo, to tour managers and agents.

Our editorial series isn’t just about bringing these issues to the forefront. We also want to offer practical solutions, and push the conversation forward. Help Musicians UK, the leading independent music charity in Britain, kick-started much of this debate back in 2014, when they published one of the first detailed surveys of mental health in the music industry, leading to the eye-opening discovery that 60 percent of musicians have struggled with their mental health, compared with 25 percent of people overall.

Since then, artists have become more and more willing to speak openly about their experiences, in turn, helping to raise awareness around their conditions. One of these artists has been Olly Alexander from Years and Years. So, we decided to put Olly on the phone with Richard Robinson (the chairman of Help Musicians UK), to thrash out what needs to happen to actually fix, or at least make steps towards fixing, the music industry’s mental health problem.

Noisey: Hey both! So first off Olly, could you tell us a bit about your own experiences with mental health?
Olly Alexander: My mental health struggles started to manifest when I was an adolescent. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, and throughout my teenage years I self harmed and had bulimia, so I had a lot of self-destructive habits. I’ve been taking medication for a long time and I’ve seen therapists on the NHS and privately, so I think I have a fairly rounded knowledge now of mental health and the differences between what the public and private sector can offer in terms of support.

What do you think charities like Help Musicians UK could do to help musicians who are going through similar struggles?
Olly: The work that charities do is super important. We talk about “awareness” a lot, but we need to think about what this actually means. I think if there was more awareness at a senior level, from management to labels, they would be in a better place to support and look after vulnerable people who are entering the music industry.

Richard Robinson: For us, it’s always about the next step. At the Great Escape Festival on Friday this week, we’re going to be launching the world’s first all-encompassing survey about mental health within the music industry. So what we’re trying to do, is not just talk about mental health, but find out what musicians want and how charities like ours can help them so that we can build something that is fundamentally robust. Completely removing the stigma that surrounds mental health is an important step. How do you think we could do this, Olly? It’s something that we as a charity struggle with because we know it’s out there, but we want people to feel like they can come to us.

Olly: In our culture there’s still so much inherent shame when we talk about our mental health, and we still don’t talk about it in the same way we do our physical health. When I was at school we didn’t learn about mental health at all, so I think getting people to start talking about it as young as possible is a good thing, and discussing it in a way that isn’t tied up with embarrassment.

Richard: We’ve considered trying to work with music colleges and universities across the country to make sure that as well as young musicians learning about the logistics of entering the music industry, such as licensing, they also learn how to look after their emotional well-being—almost like a “mental health first aid kit”—which is just as important as the logistical stuff.

Olly: I think that sounds like a really good idea. Especially when you’re touring constantly, you don’t have that stability because you’re playing so many dates – those are the times when you might be particularly vulnerable, and it’s important to keep up the coping mechanisms.

What sort of tools do you use while you’re on tour to make sure you’re coping?
Olly: I try and set myself little routines, for example after sound check, I might do an exercise video, or I’ll make sure I eat at the same time every day. It sounds like basic stuff, but being on the road can be really chaotic, and for me it helps to implement a routine. Another thing is talking about it with the rest of my band and being able to say “I feel a bit low today,” which is really important to be able to do. If you’re all clued up about how each other is feeling then you’re in a better place to help each other. I also have Skype therapy sessions.

Richard: We tend to be contacted by a lot of DJs that are on tour on their own who are going from place to place, and they don’t have that network, so that sort of underlines how important it is to have those coping strategies, whether it’s somebody on Skype, or having somebody you can call. That’s one of the things we are trying to find out, for example: does the music industry need a 24 hour helpline that is specifically geared towards their needs, run by people who are aware of the profession?

Olly: Yeah, that could potentially be helpful; it’s worth trying out different things.

Olly, you mentioned that you struggled with your mental health long before you became such a high profile figure. How has experiencing fame impacted your mental health?
Olly: It definitely posed some challenges that I didn’t feel very equipped for. You go from being relatively obscure to someone who’s being put on this platform and being judged in the media or online. It is a difficult adjustment to make, and I definitely struggled with it initially, and I still have moments now when I can’t get my head around it. I felt like I needed to very quickly learn how to use tools to protect myself, and I have to thank my therapist for helping me to do that, as well as my own network of support.

What advice would you give to musicians who are on the cusp of fame on how to navigate the emotional upheaval that surrounds that?
Olly: When I was going through that situation, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone else because nobody would understand me, or that I should just feel lucky because it’s what I’ve wanted my entire life. It’s a very confusing time. I would really have loved somebody to have told me, “That’s normal. It’s okay to feel terrified or to question what you’re doing, and it will get better.” Eventually, I did get that from somebody who had been in the public eye for a number of decades and had then reached the other side of it. We had a really good chat and he really put me at ease and made me realise that, “Oh yeah, of course that’s bound to happen to you if you’re put in this situation.”

Richard: Do you think that would be helpful for musicians at every stage of their career? Is "mentoring" the right word?

Olly: I think the idea of having mentors for musicians could have huge potential. I can really remember, at every stage of my career, benefitting from the advice of musicians who have been through the same thing.

Richard: That’s really useful. There could be mentors for those who are at other levels in their career also, whether you’re going through the pressure of having to earn enough money to be a musician, or being on the cusp of fame. I guess it’s just about how we, as a charity, try to deal with this, or how the industry itself deals with it.

There’s often a lot of focus on the mental health issues faced by high profile musicians, but as you said, there needs to be support for those who don’t have that work security or stability.
Richard: Yeah, you could be a drum tech; you could be an agent; there are lots of people who have these issues within the industry. All it really requires is a logical approach and bringing a strong coalition of forces that can help do something about it.

There must be an immense pressure in having to always create something with the expectation that it should be “successful”.
Olly: Definitely—that’s a real thing; that constant struggle between art and business. I’ve found that incredibly difficult. I have days when I really don’t feel capable of performing or giving a good interview, but you have to do it. You can’t cancel a show or reschedule.

Do you think there’s any way we can get around that? Do you think the industry needs to slow down?
Richard: Everybody reacts differently to change and pressure and whether you’re a musician on the road, or trying to put together a demo, it’s about how you react to those pressure’s that you put on yourself, as well as the pressure that comes from others.

Olly: That’s a good point. After Years & Years had released a few songs and we were getting a bit of hype, I was putting an insane amount of pressure on myself and I made myself really sick. I felt like I had to succeed, like failing just wasn’t an option. What my therapist told me is that “there will be a time when you won’t be a 25-year-old obsessing over your first album, and when Years & Years are over, and you need to be okay with that person too.” I really took that on board and that helped me a lot.

What do you think can be done to support musicians who are coming down from critical success? Or perhaps never reached it?
Richard: It’s difficult because as a charity we only have finite resources. But we try to help musicians who have hit a crisis point, whether that’s emotionally, or from a career perspective. We had one musician come to us who had been in the top 5 in the charts with massive success, and is now virtually homeless. In those cases, we can give them a crisis grant and offer support to find their next steps.

It would very easy for us to say that responsibility lies with the label, or with the industry, but we exist to support these artists through every stage. All we’re trying to do is wave the flag and say to musicians: “If you are struggling, if there are issues we can help you with, then talk to us.” Because really, we can’t carry on the way were are going. Something needs to change.

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This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health'. You can read more from this series right here. If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website here. And if you would like to know more about the work of Help Musicians UK, you can visit them here.