The Year Musicians Left the Stage for the Timeline and Opened Up About Mental Health


This story is over 5 years old.


The Year Musicians Left the Stage for the Timeline and Opened Up About Mental Health

Social media has become a valuable platform for drawing the circle of conversation about mental health and our pop stars much wider.

Illustrations by Courtney Menard  In a recent interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, The Weeknd opened up about experiencing anxiety as a musician. "You're not normal if you sing to people. It's nerve-wracking. You're literally putting yourself out to hundreds of thousands of people," he said quietly.  "Any time you see your favourite artist and he or she is screwing up, it's not because they can't sing. He or she's scared." It can be hard to reconcile with knowing that the artists we love so much—the curators of soundtracks that pull us through our lives—often grapple with as much darkness as we have when we leaned on them hardest. The truth is deeper than downplayed stage fright: musicians can be up to three times more likely to have depression versus their everyday fans.


Such were the findings of a new study by Help Musicians UK, the largest survey of musicians on mental health to date. Out of all the artists and music industry professionals surveyed, 71 percent said they've had anxiety and panic attacks, 68 percent said they've suffered depression, and 55 percent believed there are gaps in mental health services for musicians. Combined with musicians' lack of time, money, energy, or all of the above for accessing those services—especially on a no-sleep tour schedule—setting aside time for help can take years. With that backdrop, 2016 saw a growing amount of musicians sharing candid, emotional updates on their mental health through social media. More than ever, social media has become a valuable, accessible platform for drawing our circle of mental health conversation wider, but it's happened for better and for worse.

Justin Bieber went long on Instagram in March about his decision to cancel after-show meet and greets with fans. "I want to make people smile and happy but not at my expense," he wrote. "I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression." As i-D reported, it was an unprecedented move by the boy who'd given most of his life to his adoring fans from his YouTube covers days, and fans posting their support competed with others criticizing Bieber's choice as an act of selfishness. Come June, One Directioner turned solo artist Zayn Malik was set to play a homecoming festival performance at Wembley Stadium in London with 90,000 seats awaiting screaming fans. But Zayn didn't see it through. Rather than issue the traditional distant "due to unforeseen circumstances…" cancellation, Zayn posted a revealing note of his own to his 20 million Twitter followers: "With the magnitude of the event, I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career."


Just a few months after Bieber's admission, the overall reception for Zayn was several shades more sympathetic and furthered by Gigi Hadid tweeting her own note of support that encouraged her 3 million followers to do the same. "After I put out that statement I was blown away by just how many people got in contact… Guys on Twitter were telling me how anxiety had affected their lives and saying that they were glad I had spoken up," Zayn later wrote in his self-titled autobiography. "I wanted to tell the truth. Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of." Zayn is by no means the first artist to speak so openly on mental health —Brian Wilson, Sinéad O'Connor, Halsey and so many more come to mind, and Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels also spoke on depression that month—but in owning his anxiety instead of letting it own him and doing so directly to fans online, the match was lit, setting off an influential new wave of mental health dialogue across music and social media.

In August, Selena Gomez put out a statement sharing her experience with depression, panic attacks and anxiety as side-effects of her previously-known struggle with lupus: "I want to be proactive and focus on maintaining my health and happiness and have decided that the best way forward is to take some time off… I know I am not alone by sharing this, I hope others will be encouraged to address their own issues." In September, Bruce Springsteen opened up about having severe depression in his early sixties in the lead-up to his memoir Born to Run. "It was like all my notorious energy, something that had been mine to command for most of my life, had been cruelly stolen away," Springsteen wrote. "I was a walking husk." Throughout the fall, Carmen Elle of DIANA got candid about how her anxiety impacted the Toronto synthpop group in several interviews. Speaking with Daily VICE, Elle noted how much more comfortable she and other musicians have become about talking about mental health. "As soon as I started being like 'Oh… I have a lot of touring anxiety,' other musicians have started to come up and be like 'Oh, me too.' I'm at a radically new stage on a personal level."

One of the hardest confessions to read came from Kid Cudi, who posted a heartbreaking status on his Facebook page in October that he had entered rehab to overcome depression and suicidal thoughts. One word stood out in particular: ashamed. Of everything musicians have shared publicly on mental health in 2016, Cudi's was one of the most necessary. Open dialogue on mental health is especially a hurdle for men, particularly in rap, when masculinity is falsely equated with bottling up feelings of weakness. Driven by support for Cudi, black Twitter formed a community around the hashtag #YouGoodMan where people of colour could find each other to engage in judgment-free conversations on mental health and its intersections with race and masculinity, including a thread of songs about black men and mental health. Discussion in #YouGoodMan grew to include concerns and well-wishes for Kanye West following his reported hospitalization in November, the same day all remaining dates of the Saint Pablo Tour were cancelled.

But all this expanding press and social media coverage of musicians and mental health isn't without bad judgment calls. Complex ran an exploitative, highly speculative piece on West involving a clinical psychologist answering a series of "what ifs" based on his rumored psychiatric evaluation. Questions covered drug tests, involuntary versus voluntary evaluations, and what the worst-case scenario could be. Sympathy for musicians struggling with mental health also hasn't been consistent across the board, but rather a matter of convenient narratives. The same social media users who bullied Bieber following his Instagram post about depression paid Zayn far more respect overall in the wake of his tweet on anxiety, but even then, media coverage on both encompassed speculative or sensational stories. In the case of someone like West, all we can do is wait and hope he pulls through this time in his life. It's not worth anyone's time to go looking for "clues" in past interviews, trying to bend The Life of Pablo lyrics to support theories on his future, or assuming West has issue XYZ based on clickbait.

After returning to the stage in November, Cudi posted another status update about his mental health on Facebook, shouting out close friends and collaborators for their love throughout his recovery, his new state of mind, and promising a round of thank-you hugs. One name stood out in particular: Zayn. Just months ago, Zayn was in Cudi's place, coming to terms with mental health as part of his identity online. Someone reading this is sure to go through their own period of darkness in the future, and along with music itself, the support of tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook posts from the artists they love will be there. But social media is not the be-all end-all for normalizing mental health dialogue. If our collective understanding of music and mental health is to advance past 2016, the music industry needs to communicate better with artists and professionals on their needs, media outlets have to follow ethical policies on covering health period, and the conversation needs to keep going offline. Jill Krajewski is a writer who lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.