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Why We Need to Do More Than Talk About Mental Health in Music

A letter from our UK editor on how, for this year's Mental Health Awareness Week, we want to get practical.

by Tshepo Mokoena; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
08 May 2017, 9:32am

It's odd how swiftly things can change. As we've already said on this very site, there's been a transformation in the ways both the press and general public try to understand mental health in the music industry. Well, maybe only if you're feeling optimistic. Just ten years since Britney's much-sensationalised emotional breakdown, it would be beyond ignorant to mock her today as the tabloids did then, rather than empathise with her mental health struggles. You could say the same of East 17's Brian Harvey or Sinead O'Connor in recent years, whose ill health is often also laid bare in public on social media. But this isn't a fringe issue. While we seem to forget this statistic every time it does the rounds, one in four people in the UK have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

In music, it's even more pronounced. In November 2016, you may have read about renowned charity Help Musicians UK highlighting research that showed how often musicians self-report living with anxiety and depression. In comparison with that one if four stat for the general public, researchers Sally Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave found that of 2,200 people surveyed who work in music, nearly three out of four reported to have suffered from anxiety and more than two-thirds with depression.

As Gross and Musgrave wrote in the report, their findings "suggest that music – and by this we mean working in, or having ambitions to work in, the music industry – might indeed be making musicians sick, or at least contribute towards their levels of mental ill health". In short: the nature of precarious work in a business that often pays terribly unless you hit the very upper echelons can exacerbate both physical and mental health.

Before the study came out, Noisey partnered with Help Musicians UK this time last year, on a week of impactful articles and short films taking a closer look at how mental health issues affect people in the industry. That work is still as important now. And from there, we shouted louder than ever about how much we need to de-stigmatise mental health problems by talking honestly about them. It felt like a real shift was happening, with more artists from Stormzy to Zayn Malik coming forward to share their intimate stories in interviews and on social media.

And yet, while things seem to change on one level, they stay the same on others too. As much as I'd love to have read the email back-and-forth that resulted in Lady Gaga Skyping Prince William about mental health, we can only gain so much from acknowledging that it's "time to talk". If the royals weren't bound by the rules that stop them from appearing to take sides in politics, a member of their family would probably be well-positioned to wield their influence by speaking out against the cuts to mental health services that make care unaffordable for people who weren't born to a life of privilege.

Any of us with whatever amount of cash in our bank accounts can find our mental wellness slipping, but – as Gross and Musgrave's research also pointed out – the main barrier to accessing help comes from not just a fear of speaking out, but not having the money to afford private mental health care (or medication, if needed). And austerity itself contributes towards mental illness.

That's why, this year, we're trying to get practical too. I worry that mental health has become a selling point or commodity in the media rather than a top priority at local and national level under the current Tory government. It's become an easy topline to promote an interview, a hook for a story rather than the force propelling a story forward. If we learned nothing else from NME's Stormzy cover – repurposing a vital Channel 4 piece and making it look like he'd granted NME an interview – it's that mental health needs to be covered with integrity and commitment.

So we'll be exploring fewer stories for this year's Mental Health Awareness Week than in the past, looking for concrete advice and testimonials from the people who work closest with artists. We want some of the pieces we're running this week to serve as resources that those working in music can return to, on everything from skunk and psychosis to the phone number to call in the UK to access a helpline for those with addiction and mental health issues.

Yes, it's time to talk. But it's time to do more than that too, applying pressure on MPs, local councillors and the people in government who ought to be paying attention to the health of their citizens. Charities work exceptionally hard in this area, but they shouldn't do so without funding and support. We can't continue to frame mental illness as something apolitical, when it's bound up in your access to wealth, housing and stability – all things that may sound laughably out of reach for a jobbing and touring musician. Then, once we've applied more pressure, we can fight for the next wave of change.

If you or someone you know have been struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, the Samaritans in the UK can be contacted seven days a week, at any time, on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

You can find Tshepo on Twitter and find Joel's work on Tumblr.

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The Noisey Guide To Music and Mental Health
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