Depression + Musical Artists: What Nobody Wants To Talk About

Depression and other mental disorders are more common than it seems in the art world, especially for musical artists. Despite their prevalence, very little is said about these issues. In this article, DJTT contributor Teo Tormo outlines the state of depression in our industry and what impact it has had on real producers and DJs.

It should be the job of everyone in the music industry to talk about the mental health problems that our community regularly faces, but the stigma of mental illness is still a very heavy burden to move.

Most People Don’t “Get” Mental Illness

Unfortunately, society (including the media we consume) often assumes mental disorders are issues of “crazy people” in the most pejorative and humiliating sense of the word. Many view visits to a psychiatrist or psychologist as something reserved for those “crazy ones”. Depression and anxiety disorders don’t do much better – if they are not stereotyped as “crazy”, they are “lazy” or just “storytellers”.

Sadly, it is very difficult to convince many otherwise until they – or one of their loved ones – suffer the disease.

Depression Is Beyond Sadness

Unlike what many believe, depression is not just “feeling sad” – at least not at the first stages. The symptoms usually manifest in another way.

It often starts as a constant tiredness that accompanies the sufferer during the day, but does not let them sleep at night. When someone with depression manages to sleep, they often don’t feel the need to get out of bed afterwards.

Most of the time they don’t perceive an obvious sadness. It’s more like a lack of interest in everything that they loved before, as well as an inability to make plans for the future and a lack of concentration. They get easily irritated and become obsessed with negative aspects of situations they did not care about before. And above all, a person with depression often does not believe that they suffer from it, as they dissociate and “explain away” the symptoms

Patients go to the doctor encouraged by relatives or friends who’ve observed the unexplained changes as a whole. That’s when they are first told they have depression. The causes of depression can be environmental, social, or organic. There is also a genetic predisposition to suffer it, and it is related in many cases to drug use and abuse, as well as to emotional situations of grief or equivalents; depression can also be a symptom of other diseases, some degenerative. Depression is fought with medication, occupational therapy, confrontation of problems, and support from friends and loved ones.

But in the case of artists who work actively in the music industry, it is common that no one warns them that they have a problem, and nobody recommends them to see a doctor, take a break or take care of themselves. For the sake of the business, they are recommended not to say a word.

Depression + Artists: Don’t Kill The Golden Goose?

For a person with a common job, suffering from depression automatically means taking sick leave, taking medication, and going to therapy. The results may take a couple of months to appear, assuming the psychiatrist finds the right medication. Of course, medication alone doesn’t help if the patient needs to stop drug abuse, learn healthy routines, take therapy seriously, and needs emotional support.

In the case of an active professional artist, things get complicated. Going on tour can mean a lot of emotional wear for any musician, DJ, or stage artist. A few common experiences that many touring artists mention:

  • Minimal breaks between performances, often used for travel and rehearsal
  • Sleeping in beautiful and sometimes luxury places, but none is their home.
  • Being far away from their loved ones
  • Not having trusted people to talk to about worries, which can lead to isolation.

Anxiety is always present, and its prevalence is a common trigger for worse mental heath diseases. The temptation to stifle stress with something as common as alcohol is ever-present, and in the music industry, it’s very easy to find all kinds of illegal drugs without repercussion.

“Even if you don’t abuse anything, the hours of endless waiting in lonely hotel rooms can drive you crazy. In the beginning even talking to a person next to you on a plane is exciting, but eventually you start to freaking out before flights and all the waiting becomes tiring […]

I believe that this anxiety is a disease of the modern society because we work too much and put our bodies into extreme situations and end up taking medication or a break. But there are not too many options.” – Danilo Plessow (Motor City Ensemble)

The night work schedules of many artists, together with irregular sleep rhythms due to traveling, situations of constant work stress in search of success and approval of the media and the audiences, and topped with meals after hours, cause great imbalances in the body’s biochemistry, and a greater fatigue that aggravates everything, specially in how the brain works and processes the day-to-day experiences.

Dubstep DJ and producer Benga captured this pretty well when talking regarding his two-year retirement in 2015:

“This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they are weak, or that they can’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool”, said Benga to The Guardian that year in an interview.
Benga also revealed on Twitter that his bipolar diagnosis was “brought on by drugs” and his schizophrenia was “the result of excessive touring”.

Artists developing depression are not aware of what is happening to them. Exhausted and unmotivated, they have the feeling of not being in control of their lives, but can’t stop to escape home for a few days. Stopping working could mean canceling a festival set or several dates of a tour. This builds distrust in festival/club bookers and fans alike.

Tim Bergling (Avicii) talked about this last year with The Hollywood Reporter:

“[…] I started touring when I was 18. From that point on, I just jumped into it 100 percent… It was the best time of my life in a sense. It came with a price, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety for me…”

At age 24, after six years of touring, he had his gallbladder removed due to excessive drinking. In spring 2016, he announced his retirement from stages at the end of the summer.. He seemed to be happy with his decision:

“To me it was something I had to do for my health… I just feel happy. I feel free at this point… I’m happier than ever I have been in a very, very long time.”

Keeping Up Appearances

As an artist, there’s always the question of public image. An artist might not want to say they’re taking time off because they’re depressed and need to get well. Because of society’s failure to understand mental health, such an admission will generate a bad reputation. Fans could see it as an excuse, promoters might avoid taking the risk of booking dates in the future.

It’s more common to hide everything, as Ben Pearce said in an official statement about the cancellation of his 2016 shows due to his battle against depression:

“It is real, it isn’t talked about enough in society or the music industry[… ]It can be easy to hide behind your social media or intoxicants and pretend it isn’t happening but that doesn’t help in the long run”.

Common medications for depression sometimes causes early side effects that make difficult to work on a stage, including blurred vision, nervousness, and confusion. Many patients struggle with confidence, and a frequent side effect is total libido loss – and sometimes eventual impotence. Going through these challenges often causes artists to decide to carry on as if they aren’t depressed, when that really just makes it even harder to overcome it.

In the end, the disease itself forces them to take a break when they’re physically unable to work, or when their behavior during live performances begins to be so erratic that it is a notorious and constant problem. But when that happens, the nightmare of the cancellations and the loss of confidence becomes reality in the worst way. 

That’s what Erick Morillo faced in 2013 when he was escorted out of the Ocean Club at Quincy, Massachusetts, after 45 minutes of an erratic DJ session and odd behavior. Erick ended losing more dates the same month, but luckily he decided to go rehab. Three years later, he recognized in an interview with Pete Tong that he faced problems with alcohol and ketamine:

 “My ego couldn’t take that I wasn’t the top dog anymore. That’s when things started to unravel”, said Morillo referring to new young DJs having success and taking the scene.

“How are you depressed if you’re a famous artist?”

It can be surprising that wealthy and popular artists are capable of becoming depressed. The preconception of material wealth increasing a person’s happiness and well-being is simply false. Depression rarely has anything to do with material needs.

There are so many potential causes – as previously mentioned – from genetic to environmental. A common cause for many artists can be being pushed into an artistic career at a young age. This can make it hard to develop emotional securities and deal with major live traumas. Professional success or a high income won’t solve any emotional problems someone has.

In fact, people developing depression often don’t enjoy success and only find a huge emptiness after each triumph. They usually believe that a new professional goal will relieve them, but it only exhausts them and sinks them further. Focusing on their career separates them more from their family and friends without realizing it. Sometimes when they go back home, they don’t know how to express to their relatives the problems they face.

Making Mental Health A “Normal” Problem

Just as people think it normal to have a blood test every so often, or a visit to a dentist for a cleaning, it should be understood that mental health is also worthy of a checkup, This is even more true for those jobs with a lot of emotional exhaustion.

Visiting a therapist or psychologist should be be an accepted normal thing. They can listen to a person’s problems and determine if there is a disorder that requires therapy or a referral to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication. We should accept it the same way as breaking a leg or getting the flu.

As long as that’s not normal, we’ll continue to see artists who suddenly leave their jobs and retire forever. Worse yet, they might end up in a psychiatric hospital, commit suicide, or die accidentally due to a bad combination of drugs and alcohol. The latter was exactly what sadly happened to Adam Goldstein (DJ AM), who was found dead after consuming a lethal cocktail of recreational drugs and prescription medication. Goldstein developed a drug addiction in his adolescence due to a dysfunctional family with a cruel father who was also addicted to drugs; that was a traumatic burden that he dragged all his life and that was aggravated by his lifestyle as a music star.

Numbers + Call To Action

Music Minds Matter is a 24/7 free service launched this month. It is focused on helping UK musicians that suffer from mental health problems, and is run by the Help Musicians UK charity fund. During 2016 and 2017, Music Minds Matter and HMUK commissioned the University of Westminster and MusicTank to undertake a large study into the working conditions of active musicians. 2,211 professionals took part in the study and scary numbers were obtained:

71% of all respondents reported experiencing panic attacks and high levels of anxiety
68.5% reported they experienced depression.

With those numbers, it’s crystal clear that mental health must be taken very seriously by all professionals in the music sector. The industry must become more sensitive, protective, and preventive. And to our readers: start this change with yourself. Always work in a healthy way for your body and mind, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you think something isn’t right, and ignore what judgement others might pass. The most important thing is your health and peace of mind.

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