When the Spotlight Fades: Mental Health and Touring Musicians

When the Spotlight Fades: Mental Health and Touring Musicians

By Joe Sheridan

May 19, 2016 12:25

Whether you’re a multi-million-selling artist performing to tens of thousands of people each night, or you’re in a local band scrabbling together the petrol money to get to the next toilet circuit venue, you’re equally susceptible to the detrimental effects which can arise as a result of living with mental health issues. 

In fact, the more successful an act becomes, the harder it can be for them to find a sympathetic ear when discussing such issues. When we hear of musicians whose public images epitomise the excesses of rock’n’roll fame talking frankly about depression or anxiety, we might struggle to understand how someone so idolised could possibly be unhappy. And that in itself is a problem.

According to a 2014 survey by the charity Help Musicians UK, mental health issues affect around 60% of musicians. That figure may seem high at first, but when you consider the context – increasing costs and decreasing incomes, weeks at a time away from home, friends and family, finding oneself in a new city each day – it really shouldn’t be that surprising.

While we all surely have our own share of ‘sad’ songs which we love, it’s often the case that lyricists hide the darkest and most emotionally wrought lyrical matter behind an upbeat melody. This is particularly true for music we might consider to be ‘radio friendly’, or even ‘pop’. Where some bands wear their their despondency on their sleeves – the sadly-defunct Hindsights (tagline: “Sad Since ‘11”), for example, or Tellison, who self-describe as “sad indie rock” and whose 2015 album ‘Hope Fading Nightly’ was a lachrymose tour-de-force (a tear-de-force?) – other bands hide it so well that we might not hear the melancholy behind the melody.

Consider Fall Out Boy’s ‘7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)’, which addresses bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz’s own battles with mental illness. Titular pun aside (Atavan is a benzodiazepine drug, similar to Valium), the song is so fast-paced and catchy that it has crowds of fans happily singing along to lines like “I’m having another episode” and “I don’t do too well on my own”. The juxtaposition of this lyrical content with the poppy, hooky structure shows how easy it is to see and hear people discussing their mental health issues without noticing.

One common issue that many musicians experience is the rush that comes from being onstage, and the crash and attendant lows which can come afterwards. This has been described by some professionals as ‘Post Performance Depression’, or P.P.D.

John C. Buckner, a specialist in Community Psychology and Development Psychology at Harvard, writes:

“When the body experiences major shifts in mood, it is flooded with several different neurotransmitters, resulting in a biochemical release that leads to a feeling of ecstasy. After an exciting performance the body starts to balance out the level of neurotransmitters, and therefore it is not releasing the same level that cause the exciting feelings, resulting in a lingering sadness.”

Neurotransmitters are chemicals which allow our brains to communicate with our bodies. So in other words, exciting experiences flood our brains with happiness in a manner not dissimilar to the temporary highs caused by stimulants like those found in some recreational drugs. Performing live gives musicians a high and as anyone who’s ever had a particularly heavy night out knows, what goes up must come down.

The cathartic nature of songwriting, though, means that musicians who live with these issues may find that the cause of their problem can also be one of its solutions.

As Luke Rainsford, vocalist in Layover, explains:

“Being a musician that struggles with mental health is a very strange thing. The very nature of depression means it’s usually the last thing you want to talk about, but in the course of songwriting, it manages to sneak its way in and become a major theme in the music you produce. It can be quite daunting to play songs you’ve written during some of the darkest periods of your life, especially when a lot of people still don’t really understand mental health issues that well, but over time I’ve learned to be proud of it to an extent.”

Connor Cottrell, vocalist for Brighton hardcore band Put Down, finds performances to be cathartic. “I have suffered with depression and anxiety for several years…Being able to get on stage and express how I feel to a room full of people who suffer from similar issues, listening to what I have to say [helps]”.

And while the concept of performance as catharsis is as old as music itself, it’s another example of the cycles involved with some mental health issues. The stresses involved in the process of touring bring their own challenges.


In response to these figures and citations, no doubt some might shrug and suggest that musicians seek an alternative career. But ask yourself this: how different would your life be, but for those bands who changed your life? Through whom you met your best friends, lovers, life partners? Whose art connects with you on a level which mere words can’t describe? And how different would your life be if every time those musicians had suffered as a result of their career choices, they’d sacked it off and taken a job fitting bells to bikes at the local branch of Halfords?

But what can be done to help them? And how can the industry learn to react more quickly and appropriately when it becomes clear that they need help? When a musician is flying high, many people are invested in their career.

Take dubstep pioneer, Benga. Throughout the first half of this decade, Benga enjoyed Top 10 singles and albums as a member of Magnetic Man, and even a Top 5 hit as a writer/producer with 2011’s ‘Katy On A Mission’. A source, who declined to be identified, tells us that stories of Benga’s alcoholism and drug use were rife – a joke, even – within the industry. That he was seen as someone who liked to party.

In 2015, he revealed that he’d been sectioned the previous year as a result of bipolar order and schizophrenia, laying the blame partly on the industry itself.

“My bipolar was brought on by drugs and the schizophrenia was the result of excessive touring”, he tweeted. “I dont[sic] want sympathy but to raise awareness. Because if I had help early the damage could have been controlled!”

Obviously everyone is different and there’s no one golden rule for looking after yourself on tour or in the studio, but there are organisations out there dedicated to helping musicians who might feel like they are suffering in silence. The Musicians’ Union provides links to resources for members and non-members alike, and a more hands-on approach is being taken by the organisation Help Musicians UK.

Help Musicians UK which has been around in various forms for almost a century, was set up with the purpose of supporting emerging, professional and retired musicians, in all genres, dealing with stress, psychotic disorders and substance abuse, as well as assisting with financial issues that might arise from mental health challenges affecting a musician’s career. The existence of organisations like this – and their support by the wider music community – is incredibly important, particularly the one-to-one assistance they can offer musicians.

So being a musician can be both therapeutic for, and detrimental to one’s mental health. And perhaps it might always be thus – does it take a certain type of person to seek a career in music, despite the ever-diminishing returns? Possibly. But, at the independent level at least, there are things you, as a consumer and fan, can do. Support bands. Attend shows. Buy merch. Buy music. Provide your favourite artists with a sufficient income when they do tour, so that they can afford to keep doing so while also feeding themselves and their families.

Art will always attract people whose need for self-expression is rooted in suffering. But it doesn’t have to make the problem worse.

Co-written by Rob Barbour