Help: Mental Health in Music

A few of us began knocking ideas about for Christmas specials and it was really nice to hear Sam and Mark suggesting ones they wanted to write. I’ve been wanting to write this exploratory piece for a while, ever since Nathan’s review of Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn actually. Initially I thought the subject of mental health wasn’t appropriate for Christmas but it’s probably far more apt to run a piece about this now rather than at any other time of the year.

The subject of mental health in music is much overlooked, rather like mental health in every industry and social group. Clearly there’s a stigma with being labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘depressed’ and the British music industry has historically found it hard to help musicians who have shown disturbing or erratic behaviour in public. I’d even go so far as to say that the industry has consistently exploited their talents, and ultimately distanced themselves from any criticism when things have gone tragically wrong. This doesn’t help anyone, and it sets the cause back a million years when a huge and profitable industry takes this ‘laissez faire’ attitude to mental illness.

Let’s start with Syd Barrett. As Nathan correctly points out, Barrett’s musical legacy will forever endure in one Pink Floyd album, which showed a dazzling, unconventional genius at work. Yet this is also tragic, as he was clearly more than capable of producing much more than just one album and a smattering of singles. Others argue that his legacy lives on in Pink Floyd’s later works, The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. I agree, but this doesn’t erase the point that more, much more, should have been done to help Syd Barrett while he was still a fully functioning member of Pink Floyd.

From late 1967 to the announcement of his departure from the band in 1968, Barrett displayed so much erratic and troubled behaviour that constructive action should have been taken. At one point he disappeared for a long weekend and returned with a ‘dead eyed stare’, which seemed to signal his gradual descent into schizophrenia. Instead of trying to care for Syd, the band ultimately decided to turn their backs on the poor guy. Thankfully one of the band managers decided to keep working with Syd but they still didn’t seem to be able to help in the way that he so desperately needed them to.

He even had a spell in a psychiatric unit in Cambridgeshire for a while, before finally leaving the music industry and slowly deteriorating mentally and physically. What an utterly undeserved legacy for the founding genius of the world’s most famous Prog Rock act.
– Michelle Dhillon

One of my heroes is Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and he didn’t fare much better. It was well known that Curtis suffered from epileptic fits and severe depression, yet it doesn’t seem that anyone really did much to help him manage either of these conditions while he was in Joy Division. He experienced many seizures while on stage yet nobody stepped in to stop Ian Curtis from being on tour. Instead, instructions were constantly given to stage crew not to use flashing lights, however this wasn’t always preventable. He was also on a constant cocktail of drugs that were no doubt making him feel worse.

Irregular sleeping patterns will only exacerbate epileptic fits so clearly this would be incompatible with constant touring, however it’s hard to find any examples where the band’s management recognised this. Towards the very end of his life he was appointed a minder to make sure he took his medication and slept sufficiently, and that was about it. Ian Curtis first attempted suicide on April 6 1980, so perhaps this is when the minder was put in place. Some would say it was too little and far too late. He committed suicide in the early hours of 18 May 1980, around the time I was born. It was only after this awful incident that the band admitted they’d never really listened to his song lyrics:

“This sounds awful, but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics…Looking back, how could I have been so bleeding stupid? Of course he was writing about himself! But I didn’t go in and grab him and ask, ‘What’s up?’ I have to live with that.”
– Stephen Morris, The Guardian, 2007

The early 90’s saw two major incidents of music stars battling mental illness. The most famous is Kurt Cobain‘s suicide in April 1994. Cobain’s case has eerie similarities to Ian Curtis. Both artists were suffering with a debilitating physical illness. Cobain had stomach pains from an undiagnosed illness and was, unbelievably, self-medicating with Heroin to counteract the pain. On what planet did anyone in Cobain’s inner circle think this was right or acceptable? Why the hell wasn’t he stopped from doing this by his band mates or tour manager? Perhaps he was, like Ian Curtis, already ‘too famous, too desired’ for anyone to even consider stopping him from making lots of money by touring. Kurt Cobain’s family have also said that he suffered from bipolar disorder, or certainly he did suffer from depression. Was he receiving counselling or treatment? If not, why not? Perhaps other more cynical elements of the music industry recognised that they could market and sell depression back to teens in the form of Grunge rock, and Cobain was the best possible poster boy they could find to help them do that.

The second major music star battling mental illness in the early 1990s was Richey Edwards from The Manic Street Preachers. In fact 22 December 2017 marked his 50th birthday. Richey Edwards simply vanished on 1 February 1995 and hasn’t been seen for the past 22 years. Nobody knows if he’s alive and the pain his friends and family must have gone through in over two decades can’t be put into words. However, before all this, Edwards openly spoke about his battles with depression and self mutilation. He even carved the words ‘4 real’ into his arm after an interview with an NME journalist in 1991. The NME published the brutal, bloody image of this which I personally believe was wrong as it effectively normalised and glorified self mutilation to a young and impressionable audience. I remember seeing the images and photos republished in later editions of the NME when I was just 13.

If you’re going to publish something like this then for God’s sake, take some responsibility and get the guy some help too! Offer help to your readers, even. But I can’t recall any help being offered to anyone reading the NME at the time. Instead there were lots of quotes from Richey about how he felt better when he hurt himself. What were we meant to think, that this would make us feel better if we were depressed too? And again, teenagers being depressed is not a new thing, yet we were being asked to identify with very damaged artists and celebrate them. Yes Richey Edwards was a talented artist, but he should have been given constant and ongoing help. He had a spell in The Priory clinic around August 1994, but that was 3 years after the horrible public mutilation incident. What interventions had gone on between, if anything?

Were rock stars becoming more vulnerable? No, the answer is they had always been vulnerable. Perhaps the difference was that some were more open about talking about their depression than they had been in the past.
– Michelle Dhillon

The final artist I’m going to discuss, and the only woman in this piece, is Amy Winehouse. Yet her case is too similar to others here. A very talented yet tortured young woman was placed on a world stage when she was clearly vulnerable and not ready to handle such fame. While everyone rushes to label Winehouse as an alcoholic, it’s pretty clear that she turned to alcohol as a way to help her cope with her demons. She admitted in various interviews that she also had problems with depression, self harming and eating disorders. She described herself as a manic depressive and perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that Winehouse became a poorly-functioning manic depressive in a society that doesn’t respond well to or deal with mental illness effectively. She learned to cope with her problems by dosing up with alcohol and blundering on.

Here we can definitely point a finger at people around her – there are hundreds of YouTube videos showing awful live performances being marred by her drunkenness. Where was her tour manager? Where were her record label executives? They were still there, but they chose not to step in, time and time again. She should have been removed from the industry entirely and allowed several years to recover, in a monitored and stable environment. Yet who would the label make as much money out of then?

We are finally in an age where it’s becoming more acceptable to discuss mental illness – at last – and instead of shamelessly and heartlessly exploiting the incredible musical talent we have in our country, we need to make sure these artists are well supported and cared for throughout their careers.
– Michelle Dhillon

I’d like to end with these final thoughts. The music industry has always sought to profit from an artist before stopping to think if that artist is even well enough to work for them. It desperately needs to be the other way around. In fact, I’m calling for all record labels to have a health and safety policy and to undertake a medical assessment of each artist they sign on their books. This assessment must include how the label is committed to safeguarding the mental health of their artist at any point while the artist is in their care. What steps will they take to make sure Amy will get the medical help she is crying out for? Will they place all recording demands on hold, indefinitely if necessary, while they assist that artist to get the help they need? We are finally in an age where it’s becoming more acceptable to discuss mental illness – at last – and instead of shamelessly and heartlessly exploiting these incredible talents we have in our country, we need to make sure these artists are supported and cared for throughout their careers.

If you agree or have your own ideas, then either comment here, on our social channels or contact us directly. Let’s try and change these terrible tragedies for the better. And if you know someone who may be feeling isolated at this or any other time of year, take some time to let them know they are not alone.
I wish everyone reading a warm and happy festive season. See you in 2018.