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How to keep your mental health in check

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Man playing the guitar and holding his head

Pursuing a life filled with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is essential for any musician looking to make a big time, right? Partying late every night, consuming whatever substance is available, living on McDonald’s burgers and sleeping when you’re dead are top of the requirements for those wanting to pursue a career in the music industry. But what if that lifestyle has disastrous consequences? The last shows of Amy Winehouse's career were either canceled or performed drunk. And after years of abusing her own body through the use of drugs, alcohol and an eating disorder, she died in 2011.

Music and mental health has never been a big discussion point, but it’s about time that changed. The public persona of a musician is generally someone that’s ‘living the dream’ and doesn’t have to care about all that boring stuff like their physical and mental wellbeing, but the truth is, their job requires them to do so more than most.

Constant uncertainty about relevance, shelf life and where the next paycheck is coming from are just some of the anxiety-inducing worries on a musician’s mind. Long periods spent away from friends and family while touring, lengthy time spent composing or practicing alone, and dealing with overnight fame add further fuel to the fire.

Korda Marshall, founder of Infectious Music and a prolific A&R man who’s worked with acts including Alt-J, Take That and Madonna, has had over 35 years of experience in helping his artists maintain a healthy mindset. In some ways, there’s more pressure on artists these days than ever, he says, thanks to the switch in focus from recorded music income to the live arena.It builds a pressure cooker process of stress and that stress develops into all kinds of different healthcare issues“It’s brought more money into the arena business and the pressures there are huge”, Marshall explains. “These creative souls suddenly have success and turn into a business worth millions of pounds with tonnes of advisers, lawyers and accountants. It builds a pressure cooker process of stress and that stress develops into all kinds of different healthcare issues.”

Alleviating stress

Those issues could include anxiety, paranoia and depression  - all of which singer/songwriter Lucy Spraggan suffered from after appearing on the X Factor in 2012, being thrown into the public eye overnight, receiving vitriol on social media and finding it difficult to trust new people. She says: “Everybody everywhere stops and wants to talk to you and you don't know them. Some people have a dictaphone when they are chatting to you in the street, which is odd.What happens if people stop liking you, or you do the wrong thing and then your career is over?“There’s always the wavering thought of, ‘What happens if people stop liking you, or you do the wrong thing and then your career is over?’ There is lots of pressure and it’s fast moving, you're the news one day and chip paper the next. And people are always expecting, some of them are expecting you to do well and some almost wanting you to fail.”

Spraggan says the best way to get help is to know what to ask for, and that might not necessarily be drugs. Learning how to re-adjust herself to the new lifestyle, staying away from all the free booze that might be on offer, and talking about concerns with close friends and family, as well as having a new manager that tells her the truth and has her best interests in mind has helped her return to full health.

Being prepared for what you’re letting yourself in for if pursuing a career as a well-known musician, and seeking out advice from others who have dealt with the demanding nature of touring and being in the public eye, is also top of the list of advice from Spraggan. Taking the long term view of your career will help alleviate pressure too, she adds. “You have to be really careful about the decisions you make early on in your career with regards to TV shows especially, maybe just work on EPs, go and play gigs and all that jazz.”

Healthy body, healthy mind

Taking care of your physical health is vital to maintaining a healthy mindset too. It might be boring and not cool to go to bed early, eat healthily and exercise but the pay-offs could be life changing. “It might be difficult for an artist on tour, but taking time for these activities could well alleviate stress and help boost mental health,” says Stephen Buckley, head of information and mental health charity, MIND.

Making sure young artists get eight hours sleep, eat well and are in bed by 1am while on tour, are just a few of the rules set by Korda Marshall, founder of Infectious Music. “You have to make the artist comfortable, whether that’s sleeping during the day, booking a hotel room at night as well as a tour bus so they’ve got the option of carrying on with the journey or staying where they are,” he explains.

Friends and family

Buckley also highlights the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team. “If your working life is unstructured and unpredictable, it’s even more important to have a stable support network- this might include your GP, friends and family or someone you can talk to. Even though you may be busy, finding time to access this support when you need it can help you stay well and able to keep working,” he says,You have to make sure that you have people that you know, trust and that love you very muchSpraggan agrees that remembering the people who really count is important. “You have to make sure that you have people that you know, trust and that love you very much. They are the people that are still going to be there at the end of the day even if you don’t sell any singles, records, or you get on a TV show.” And having a quality manager who puts your wellbeing before profit is vital. Says Spraggan: “If your manager isn’t doing their job properly and not looking out for your best interests, you end up doing work like a dog. The person that knows when you need a bit of help should be your manager.”

Outside of the personal support network, there’s help for musicians at charity level too. In the UK, the Musicians’ Union, Nordoff Robbins and Help Musicians UK all offer counselling, therapy and support. Ultimately, being open about problems you might be experiencing and realising that it’s okay to talk will encourage open debate about a subject that’s still shrouded in stigma. “I think we can help solve the problem by being open about the problem,” concludes Marshall.

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