Depression, Isolation and Drug Addiction: When DJing Becomes a Mental Health Issue

From Avicii to Carl Cox, DJs are beginning to talk about the risks of the job.

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Jul 5 2016, 2:14pm

Image from Avicii's Facebook

The life of a touring artist seems like the dream: you get flown to new and exotic places, paid to perform your life's work onstage and be admired, and people line up to tell you how great you are and shower you with all the booze, coke and sex you could ever want.

But there's a day-to-day grind hiding behind those Instagram shots of private jets and luxury hotel pools. Isolation, irregular sleep patterns, long weeks, even months, away from your friends and loved ones, turbulent career peaks and troughs, and an endemic culture of hard drinking and drug-taking.

All of this puts pressure on the mental health of touring artists. And over the past year, more and more of them have begun to open up about how their dream job has led to some dark places.

Five years of touring and heavy drinking had already put [Avicii] in hospital twice.

Avicii retired from dance music this year at the age of 26, walking away from outrageously lucrative performance deals and a career at its peak. Five years of touring and heavy drinking had already put the Swedish star in hospital twice.

New York house legend Erick Morillo has also recently revealed that his life went into a downward spiral when his career dipped: his subsequent addiction to shooting ketamine almost cost him an arm.

Dubstep pioneer Benga has just returned from a two-year sabbatical after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder brought on, or at least masked, he believes, by years of heavy touring and drug taking.

Firebrand producer Deadmau5 also revealed his own battle with "depression issues" late last year; even the unstoppable techno don Carl Cox told Mixmag he's slowing down his touring schedule next year because he's afraid he'll "burn out". Cox quit drinking, drugs and smoking after a health scare 14 years ago, but even sober and healthy he can't keep up with the lack of sleep and constantly changing time zones that come with international touring.

Being a successful DJ and producer is supposed to be one of the greatest gigs in the world... So why are so many high profile artists burning out in such spectacular fashion?

60% of the musicians surveyed by UK charity Help Musicians said they'd experienced depression...

Academic studies show that working in the arts can put a strain on the mental health of anyone, whether you're scraping by in a squat or raking in six figure cheques in your Las Vegas penthouse. Victoria University put out a report last year linking the prevalence of mental health issues among arts professionals with low pay, long hours, and insecure working conditions. And 60% of the musicians surveyed by UK charity Help Musicians said they'd experienced depression; antisocial work hours, money troubles, irregular work and touring were named as the biggest problems.

Partying with Depression Turned My Life Upside Down

But even those riding high on success are at risk of mental health troubles. Sleep deprivation, isolation on the road and long months away from support networks of family and friends, a competitive and critical circle of peers, internet haters, and a job characterized by both massive highs and crushing lows: it can all work together to make life miserable for even the most successful artist. Pair all that with a repetitive lifestyle that's likely held together by fast food, lack of exercise and too much drinking and drug-taking, and you've got all the ingredients for despair.

Vijaya Manicavasagar is the Director of Psychological Services at the Black Dog Institute, a non-profit established to research and treat mental illness. Manicavasagar told THUMP that frenetic touring puts people at particular risk of mental health issues not only because the lack of sleep and unhealthy lifestyle make it hard to keep "your moods and emotions at an even keel," but also because partying hard can mask people's underlying troubles.

"If they're feeling low or if they're feeling anxious, they might attribute it mistakenly to, 'oh well, I've just been partying very hard, I'm hungover, whatever', so they may not even realize that actually there is an underlying problem here," Manicavasagar said.

Equally, going through the highs and lows of partying constantly can mask the jagged up and down symptoms of bipolar disorder. And often people with anxiety or depression will party even harder to try and feel sociable.

"They look at tried and true ways in the past that might have cheered them up," Manicavasagar said, "but it's probably not such a good idea to be doing that just to mask or compensate for a low mood or an anxiety problem, when actually they need professional help."

"Even if you're not necessarily an alcoholic, it can be tempting to get numb, get loose, get in the zone with everybody else." – Lousiahhh

Bromance star Louisahhh knows all about the toll that touring and partying can take. She's been sober for over a decade, but even living healthily, she still feels the strain of long, lonely weeks on the road—especially when you're touring solo, or in countries where you don't speak the language and negotiating your way around is difficult.

"I mean, I suffer from anxiety and depression," Louisahhh told THUMP. "You don't have a whole lot of emotional bandwidth for buffering any challenge. Sometimes I feel unhinged as a sober person on the road, like I'm on a totally different plane to everybody else I interact with. I won't speak to another person until I get to the club and everyone is drunk or high and not on the same wavelength as I am. That feels really uncomfortable, too. I understand, alcohol is beautiful social lubricant. Even if you're not necessarily an alcoholic, it can be tempting to get numb, get loose, get in the zone with everybody else."

Italian bass star Crookers is another who knows all about the lure of partying hard for the fun of it, and then partying just to keep up with everyone else.

"I remember one of my close friends telling me 'Dude... You look like shit!'" – Crookers

"When I started to tour a lot I was loving getting drunk and sleeping 30 minutes a night while having fun with random girls," he told THUMP. "I never tried drugs, but the only thing I remember was a couple years of feeling 'sick' all the time. To wake up every day with a hangover and go to a new airport wasn't as fun and cool as people imagine, and then starting that loop of 'drinking to get better', which wasn't fun either. I remember one of my close friends telling me 'Dude... You look like shit!'"

Crookers eventually had to pack in the drinking and take up exercise in its place, adapting to a new touring lifestyle that's "closer to how an athlete would tour rather than a club DJ".

"[I knew] that if I kept up that mad life I would get lost really quick and then it would be harder to fix it," he said. "I've noticed that in general after I started to take care of myself more, then touring became way easier and mentally more sustainable than before."

"I never would have been able to do this part of my career without getting sober," Louisahhh adds. "My [drug and alcohol] issues got me to a place that was really small, really fast. My life turned into a five-block radius between my apartment and my dealer's apartment."

There are simple warning signs, Manicavasagar said, that can point to whether someone's suffering more than a constant hangover: persistent inability to sleep; exhaustion and irritability; feelings of anxiety or dread; or "fixations on things, substances, activities or behaviours" are all signs that someone could benefit from professional help (which could take the form of anything from online tools to self-test, like those available at the Black Dog Institute, to visiting a GP for an assessment and possibly a referral to a specialist).

...it never hurts to be aware of the rigours of the touring lifestyle (even if it's just to make you feel better about your shitty office job).

"[If] they're not doing the things that they used to do, or enjoying the things that they used to do, or if they find that they can't quite get back to equilibrium, they can't quite get themselves back to what they would consider a normal lifestyle then yes, I think they should seek help," Manicavasagar said.

That's not to say it's impossible to live like a Rolling Stone and keep touring like one, too—there are plenty of major artists out there, some of them pushing their 50s, who still play every other night and start and finish every show with copious shots. But it never hurts to be aware of the rigours of the touring lifestyle (even if it's just to make you feel better about your shitty office job).

"For people who aren't familiar with the stresses of the lifestyle, it seems like you're living your dream," Louisahhh said. "You don't have a real job, you're a DJ, you get to see the world. The reality of the situation is, no, you have weird hours, you're really far from home, nobody really understands what it's like except for the people who do this, you know?

"I have seen people—I don't know how they do it because this is so hard on the body—not sleeping for, like, five days because they play, they go to the airport, they're hungover and fucked up in a hotel room, they play, they go to the airport... To put your body through that is insane."

"It's a mad life from the beginning and I think it's not for everyone, I totally understand why people leave or develop mental problems," Crookers said. "I know plenty of DJs who are crazy depressed one day, and mad fun the next. These guys suffer from the crazy nature of 'tour life' and keep doing it anyway 'cause they need it, love it and it's necessary for them."

If you'd like to talk about depression, substance abuse or other mental health issues, you can reach Lifeline 24 hours a day on 13 11 14, and Headspace on 1800 650 890.

Nick Jarvis is on Twitter over here.

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