Famous musicians are increasingly open about their struggles with mental illness. Siobhan Smith spoke to those at the frontline of the issue to find out whether the stigma around the topic is finally slipping
Recent figures have shown that almost 60% of musicians suffer from, or have suffered from, mental health issues. Meaning that, incredibly, musicians are more likely to be affected by mental health problems than not.
It’s a topic that’s increasingly in the spotlight, with more and more music stars choosing to open up about the difficulties they have faced in order to help others. Artists such as Sinead O’Connor, Brian Wilson and Robbie Williams have historically spoken candidly about mental health, and in the last few months there has been a new wave of stars sharing their experiences about suffering from different types of mental illness, including Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Angel Haze.
Most recently, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey have opened up to Billboard magazine about the issues they’ve faced. Del Rey has said that she is prone to anxiety, panic attacks and fears about dying, while Gaga spoke candidly to the same publication about suffering from depression, and her charity – the Born This Way foundation – which she set up to help disenfranchised teens feel less isolated.
“I’ve suffered through depression and anxiety my entire life, I still suffer with it every single day.” Gaga confided. “I just want these kids to know that that depth that they feel as human beings is normal. We were born that way. This modern thing, where everyone is feeling shallow and less connected? That’s not human.”
Gaga’s charity aims to use her influence as a musician in order to help fans and young people with the struggles they face.
How celebrities can help start the conversation
More and more musicians seemingly feel that they can use their position in the spotlight to change attitudes towards the ‘stigma’ that many face.
Frankie Bridge, from girl group The Saturdays, joined mental health charity Mind as a celebrity ambassador, making the decision to open up about her own experiences of anxiety and panic attacks.
We spoke to Camilla Swain – the Celebrities and Ambassadors Manager for Mind – about the significance of celebrity endorsement and the impact that musicians can have on those struggling with mental health.
She agreed that, although one in four of us now experience a mental health problem every year, there is still a “lingering stigma” that prevents people from asking for help, or sharing how they’re feeling.
So how can celebrities help?
“In 2014, Mind conducted a survey of 2,000 people about the impact of celebrities speaking out about their own mental health,” Camilla says. “We found that over a quarter (28 per cent) of people who know someone with mental health problems said they had started a conversation with a loved one about their mental health as a direct result of reading about a celebrity’s experiences.
“A quarter (25 per cent) also said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had directly inspired them to seek help for themselves. This is why it is vital that those in the public eye continue to raise awareness about mental health, to help others feel it’s OK to start talking and it’s important to ask for help.”
There has undoubtedly been an increase in conversation about mental health over the last year or two. It’s plain to see. Camilla explains that this may be a reflection of a more general positive shift in attitudes.
“Historically, many celebrities feared the reaction of their fans, potential employers or others in the industry when they considered speaking out,” she says. “As awareness and understanding of mental health problems starts to increase in the general population, it is inevitable that those in the music business also start to recognise the importance of talking about their experiences.
“When well-known musicians speak out about their own mental health problems, it prompts conversations in households and workplaces across the country, which might never have happened otherwise.”
What about the musicians themselves?
Help Musicians UK is a charity which supports professional musicians facing a crisis because of physical or mental health problems. Nigel Hamilton – the charity’s Help and Advice Manager – told us that approximately 20% of musicians approaching them for help in a crisis present mental health issues as their main problem.
However, mental health also emerges as an issue even when it’s not immediately raised.
“There is certainly greater media awareness of the subject over the last 12-18 months, and that is resulting in more awareness across the industry,” Nigel says. “I’m not sure there’s yet any observable shift among musicians as a whole. Hopefully it’s the domino effect of greater openness – long may it continue.”
Pioneering dubstep DJ and producer Benga recently opened up to The Guardian about his experiences of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and why it can be even more difficult if you are in the public eye:
“This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they’re weak, or that they can’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool,” Benga said. “Nobody wants to come clean, let alone an artist.
“I never thought it would happen to me,” he added. “As a kid, I remember there was one lady in Coulsdon who used to walk around with a doll, and that’s what I used to think when I thought about mental health. We think of mental patients in films; we need to see people like myself. People need to see that I can function and I’m not manic now, and that this can happen to anyone.”
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor has suffered with mental illness over the years, and last year she hit out at the way we deal with celebrities who have struggled in the public eye. Arguing that the treatment of famous women in particular was “notoriously abusive” she told Sky News:
“When you admit that you are anything that may be mistakenly or otherwise perceived as mentally ill, you know you’ll get treated like dirt so you don’t tell anybody and that’s why people die.”
Sinead O Connor (Getty)
With the general conversation around mental health noticeably increasing in the last couple of years, we would like to think that what O’Connor references isn’t true. But think back to the absolute mockery that Brian Harvey from East 17 received last year, as he stood outside Downing Street demanding to speak to David Cameron with a dossier of “proof” against the Government.
This was clearly a man that was not OK. Yet it was all treated as an amusing spectacle, with several publications having a laugh and joke about it, more concerned with ridiculing his appearance than questioning why he was behaving like that.
The problem with the Britney Spears meme
And what about the treatment of Britney Spears when she had a mental breakdown and was ripped to shreds, by both the media and the public?
Most of us probably joined in without realising the real harm behind it. Memes with pictures of a shaven-headed Britney looking distressed, saying things like “If Britney made it through 2007, you can make it through this day” circulated the internet.
People shared it without thinking about the potential damage that a message like that sends.
Most likely, these were shared with no malice, but it is quite clearly damaging to publicly mock someone who isn’t in a good place mentally. It’s not much wonder that musicians and celebrities have been reluctant to be forthcoming about starting a conversation about mental health.
Alanna McCardle from Welsh rock group Joanna Gruesome recently left the band. She initially said that she had left the band to focus on family, but then reconsidered her message and issued the following statement about the real reason she didn’t feel able to sing in the band any more:
“Lately, my mental health problems have become a lot worse and I’ve gone through a pretty shitty time. I’ve realised I need to actually take some time out to focus on some kind of ‘recovery’, so I won’t be singing in Joanna Gruesome anymore.”
Clearly, McCardle didn’t initially feel comfortable giving the real reason for her decision to leave the band. And it’s an age old cliché, but why do we feel unable to put forward a mental problem as a valid illness, when we wouldn’t hesitate to report on a broken bone, or a viral infection?
Nigel Hamilton of Help Musicians UK thinks that it can be difficult for musicians to speak out about mental health for various reasons:
“Generally there is a need for more openness about mental health in all walks of life. However, the particular pressures of being a musician mean the subject, and indeed any indication of weakness or vulnerability, leave musicians particularly reluctant to speak out. For example, many musicians work in an environment where perfection is the minimum acceptable standard, and where your performance is up for public scrutiny every night.”
‘It’s important not to romanticise people with mental health problems’
The music industry harbours a (slowly fading) stereoptype that mental health is part and parcel of a musician’s creativity. Traditionally, artists such as Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain were thought of as creative, tortured souls who took influence from their state of mind in their cathartic and emotionally intense music. Both, of course, went on to commit suicide.
Nigel insists that “there is no conclusive research or evidence of any specific connections between ‘creativity’ and mental health issues.”
“Within the rock and pop world there is a view held by some that ‘leftfield’, difficult or even self-harming behaviour is cool or admirable, when in fact it sometimes arises from a mental health problem and the person desperately needs help, not reinforcement in their behaviour,” he explains. “So anyone who speaks out and gets people talking about this in a realistic non-judgemental way is making a really positive contribution.”
Camilla of Mind points out that it’s important not to romanticise people with mental health problems, who she says are “too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.”
“One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health problem this year, and these individuals will come from a range of different backgrounds, professions and walks of life.”
It seems that musicians are making an important contribution to breaking down the stigma that is still very much attached to mental illness. But the stigma faced by the musicians themselves is something that also needs to be seriously addressed.