So you’re a musician. Guitar in hand, you take a deep breath, chase your Advil with vodka, and keep going. Nobody warned you that the music business consisted of sleepless nights, time zone changes, kissing butt at music festivals, and worst of all, 18-wheeler-on-your-head hangovers.
Music is not a safe place for most artists. Musicians are often classified as any or all of the following: empathic, shy, awkward, geeky, anxious, sensitive, passionate, eccentric. These traits make for great creators, but also make them prone to stress, pressure and discrimination. Some musicians develop the less desirable traits after joining the industry, but many already had mental health issues prior to strapping their first guitar to their back.
Moderated by Unison Benevolent Fund’s Amanda Power, the Mental Health in the Music Community panel discussion included guests Andrea Waddell (CAMH Bridging Clinic), Andrea Stratis (Headless Owl Records) and Teresa Cirillo (vocal coach, Studio E School of Music and Drama). Before even beginning, Power announced that the conference room should be considered a safe space, and if any attendees felt uncomfortable, they were free to come and go as needed. Two Unison staff members were stationed in the audience if anyone needed support of any sort. Power also asked panelists to introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns. This initiative to create inclusive spaces is becoming more widespread but still quite scarce at large public events. Though Waddell spoke from the treatment side of mental health issues, Stratis and Cirillo shared their lived experiences with depression and anxiety.
When we’ve already lived through prejudices or harassment, it’s hard to face it in the form of clinical ‘support’. It can feel like we are being judged, blamed or discriminated for our mental health needs. Someone in this state needs to feel heard. They don’t want to be told how to ‘get better’. The most important thing is to express their feelings. Doctors don’t tell a diabetic “get over your diabetes” or “just take your meds” or “you’ll wake up tomorrow feeling better”, so why do they do it to mental health patients? That said, many depressed people see a therapist they don’t connect well with. Some are just not ready to accept the expert advice. So how do we control anxiety? The first thing is to allow ourself to be helped.
In the UK, depression is seen as an illness. The sufferer is seen as “not normal” and told to hide those feelings. But we need to start seeing the Person first, and the illness second. We can start changing things with a simple twist in grammar when we speak. For example, rather than saying a schizophrenic woman, we can say a woman with schizophrenia. She is a woman, first. She “has” schizophrenia. Schizophrenia does not have her, and we need to stop thinking that it does. We should all encourage changing the way we think about mental illness. And encourage being open about it. Stratis is 37 years old. She transitioned from male to female at age 35, and comes from a family with a UK-raised parent. She is very active on social media, not as a mental health advocate but as someone who needs to express herself. Through this form of very public communication, of course, she encounters other people who appreciate what she shares. Her viewpoint also as a musician may seem unique to some, but expected by those also in the music community.
Unison is an international charitable organization, and they are doing something special for musicians. There is a 1-855 number to ask questions. If a musician has a problem with finances, medical issues, or even need legal guidance, Unison will go as far as to even fund the client who may not be able to afford food on their table or lawyers’ fees. Unison is a safety net. They partner with the well known Morneau Shepell – an organization that looks after the wellbeing of employees, to meet health, benefits and retirement needs. Sometimes, we don’t know why we don’t feel like going to work on a particular day. The tendency is to ask ourself WHY. Instead of stressing over why we just don’t feel like it today, we should think, the why doesn’t matter. What matters more is how we take care of ourself, and how others can help support us.
Cirillo has had to deal with employees who needed a mental health break from their job. An anxiety sufferer herself, she always takes time to deal with the human being behind the mental illness. She joked that she calls herself a breathing specialist. One – she can teach a student how to hold a note for 90 seconds. And two – she has learned how to breathe her way through anxiety. It doesn’t mean her anxiety is “cured”. It means she has become an expert at taking a moment to remind herself to breathe when things feel not-so-okay. She deals with her own issues while also helping her music students deal with theirs. The music industry can make or break a person. It can be hard to not step on people’s toes. Musicians are renown for having addiction problems (often related to their mental health issues). Cirillo has seen drunken, drugged up behavior. Others have seen this too. How many artists wrote their best songs while high as a kite?
So how can we protect or help an artist struggling in this way? Unfortunately, the industry is more invested in the artist as a product. They want the musician to finish that hit record. If the artist needs to be intoxicated to write their so-called best work, then so be it. But those that care about the human behind the artist may wonder what they can do to help get them to quit their toxic behavior patterns. Sad to say, but as Cirillo pointed out, it’s their journey. Not ours. We may care about the person’s wellbeing, but until they themself want to get help, whether for addictions or their mental health issues, it needs to come from them. All we can do as an outsider is offer our support. A safety net, as Unison would call it. We cannot “fix” someone with mental health issues. But we can offer compassion. A friendly ear. A shoulder.