We Need to Stop Treating Mental Health Like a Selling Point
As with feminism, we’re seeing a serious issue commodified by the music industry while major government action remains pretty much non-existent.
Awareness: this is the term most often used in reference to the UK's snowballing mental health crisis. Often it's used positively, through campaigns like Time To Change that aim to tackle the discrimination – particularly among men – that can prevent people seeking treatment. Sometimes it's used like a band aid for a severed limb, such as when Theresa May claimed the problem was "more about the stigma" than funding, even though budget cuts are leading to a rise in unexpected deaths, and lack of emergency beds mean the NHS often has to pay private hospitals to take their patients or send them hundreds of miles away. Then there is the music industry, which, despite so many artists and organisations being vocal on the issue over the last few years in particular, has routinely failed to provide enough tangible support. What it has done, however, is spin it into something marketable.
In a similar way to how "feminism" – in its vaguest terms – has been hijacked as a way of selling anything from period pants to singer-songwriters, mental health is rapidly becoming a commodified issue. Most recently, NME put Stormzy on the cover of an issue titled "Depression: it's time to talk" without his permission. The cover features Stormzy holding his fist in his other hand like an Eastenders character about to avenge a family crisis – as if to say "yes, it is time to talk" – and it's designed to give the impression that he gave NME an exclusive interview in which he spoke about his mental health, when in fact he turned their request down. They quoted things he'd said elsewhere and ran the cover anyway. Just weeks earlier, Stormzy spoke about his misconceptions about depression, his own experience and what convinced him to talk about it on his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, in an interview with Channel 4 News. Being the first time Stormzy had spoken so openly about depression, the video ended up going viral. NME then basically printed the transcript of that interview, with an intro tacked on.
Some people might think that because he'd already chosen to speak about it publicly, it makes it perfectly OK to redistribute the information in any other context that intends to open up a useful discussion. It's not. As Stormzy said himself in a rightfully furious string of tweets after seeing the cover: "Depression is a very very sensitive issue and it's something I've spoken about… it is a subject that isn't the easiest thing to speak about. And I've been careful in how I've dealt with it in the media… I KNOW it will help others but just imagine a personal battle of yours being published on the front of a magazine without your permission". In response, editor-in-chief Mike Williams offered a public apology via the NME's Twitter account: "I'm really sorry this has happened. We're a free magazine and were not trying to shift copies, just talk about something important."
The thing is, the only intentions that matter when it comes to publishing information about other people's experiences with mental health are those of the people who have actually spoken. They get to choose where they speak and should at the very least be aware of the context in which their words are being framed. Publishing a collection of advice on mental health in a magazine that's available for free across the country is one thing. Making it look like an artist opened up to you about their depression, when they specifically declined to be interviewed, is taking someone's narrative and using it for your own gain. That is indefensible. It's deciding to see someone with a lot of clout as putting themselves forward as a "poster boy" for something, just because they did an interview on the news once, and then thinking it's therefore OK to take that theory and run a fucking marathon with it.
I suppose the only benefit is that – compiled with the way social media pressure works – we do, in fact, have enough "awareness" now that Stormzy's comments didn't go unnoticed and NME caught it in the arse. They immediately pulled the cover from their social media banner, leaving a repetition of their logo all over their Facebook and Twitter pages, but the damage had already been done. For anyone with a platform as big as Stormzy's who may be considering sharing their story in a way that could be helpful to others, the prospect of your words and image being recontextualised without your say-so is wildly off-putting to say the least. But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where this is something that even happened at all?
Whether it's the multitude of thinkpieces that pop up every time Kanye West tweets something, or articles with headlines like Top 10 Musicians Who've Struggled with Mental Illness, we're reaching a point where the term "mental illness" doesn't have any tangible meaning. It's such a vague umbrella term in anyway, used in reference to anything from OCD to dementia, that simply repeating "mental illness" over and over again actually does more harm than good. As with feminism, the term's over-saturation in the media gradually erases any to all nuance and it becomes another empty trend, designed to shift product or make a reader click on a headline or pay attention. It becomes a brand, almost; a defining characteristic, a genre of its own. If I search "depression" or "anxiety" and "press release" in my inbox, I'm faced with 32 and 59 pages of results respectively – and that's not including all the stuff that went straight to spam or I immediately deleted because it was so crass.
It's not hard to see why that's happening, either. It's difficult to be heard in an increasingly swamped music industry and it's especially difficult to "just make music" now that the pressure to engage with the socio-political landscape has never been higher. So, awkward though it may be, it makes sense to try to relate an artist to a "hot button" topic, boosting them by making them part of wider conversation. The danger, though, comes with publicising a person's struggles – even if they're OK with it – as part of how they're being sold, having them speak about it constantly, when the industry lacks the infrastructure to support them. Kind of like repackaging Taylor Swift as a modern feminist icon, when her music does very little to further equality. Who exactly does this help?
Exploring the mental health issues faced by musicians and the wider music industry in the largest survey of its kind, Help Musicians UK found in 2016 that up to 71 percent of musicians have experienced anxiety and panic attacks while 65 percent reported they had suffered from depression. The study attributes the disproportionately high numbers with poor working conditions within the industry from exhaustion to difficulty sustaining a living. "Compounding the problem," the survey reports, "is that 54.8 percent of those surveyed feel that there is a gap in the provision of services for musicians, with 46.6 percent wanting to see a dedicated counselling service for musicians." Richard Robinson, HMUK Chief Executive said the results were "unsurprising" and mark "a vital first step" on the way to launching the first music industry specific mental health service.
The mental health crisis needs consistent attention and massive reform in a very real, useful sense – both in the music industry and in society as a whole. It's not something you can attach to a particular moment and then make overblown statements such as "2015: when music destroyed mental health stigma", like we're living in some definitive Marvel comics universe in which the industry quashes the baddie Mental Health with the force of a thousand burning hot takes. One of the biggest mistakes we're making at the moment is confusing exposure to information with actual change.
Of course, it's important to cultivate a positive and open attitude towards mental health so people can seek help, and we at Noisey have been a part of getting the conversation going in the past too – but what good is that if there isn't any help? What are people supposed to do while they're stuck on an NHS waiting list for over a year to see a therapist? What if they don't have the financial support to seek private treatment, which is extremely expensive? What if medication, one of the few cheap and immediate forms of help, is unwanted and/or presents its own problems? "Fundamentally, respondents suggested that structural composition of the music industry negatively impacted their mental health," the HMUK survey concludes. The stress, financial uncertainty, relentless touring, antisocial hours, experiences of sexual harassment and other marginalising behaviour can create their own problems for an otherwise healthy artist, add pre-existing conditions into the mix and suddenly 71 percent begins to seem fairly modest.
Awareness is integral, but it's not what we need most at this point. We know the UK is facing a mental health crisis. We know it can affect anybody, and is especially prevalent within the music industry. We are aware. The real question is: what are we going to do about it?
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(Lead image from Noisey's 2016 documentary Grounded: A Short Film About Anxiety and Ambient Music)