A Psychologist’s Take on Mental Health for Musicians

Photo by Thought Catalog/Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog/Unsplash

Neuroscience researcher Joe Barnby talks about the unique challenges artists face, and how they can prepare for a career in music.


This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for health advice. You should consult your own advisors and/or mental health professionals before making any personal decisions.

Being a professional musician is thrilling, rewarding, and filled with possibilities—and it’s also intense, challenging, and overflowing with potential pitfalls that can burn you out. Earlier this year, digital distribution platform Record Union shared the results of a survey conducted with almost 1,500 musicians. The report found that more than 73% of independent music makers suffer from symptoms of mental illness, and that anxiety and depression were the most commonly experienced negative emotions in relation to music creation. In response, Record Union formed an initiative to fund projects aimed at preventing and treating mental illness among music makers.

Joe Barnby, a doctoral researcher at King’s College in London who studies the neuroscience and psychology of belief, was one of six experts on a panel that evaluated submitted projects and helped decide how to allocate Record Union’s $30,000 fund. As a former musician himself, Barnby was uniquely fit for a position on the panel, which awarded three programs with funding—a counseling boot camp, a data analysis research project on addiction in the music industry, and a podcast that interviews musicians about their struggles with mental illness. Barnby shared his insight into the effects of poor mental health, how the music industry presents artists with unique mental health challenges, and the preventative measures and potential solutions that address this glaring issue.

“You can have poor mental health without having mental illness, but the worse mental health you have, the higher risk you have of developing an illness that is lasting,” Barnby explains. This distinction is key when considering how mental health may affect a musician’s career. “It doesn't really bode well for being productive or particularly happy if you don't have very good mental health, because we know that poor mental health can lead to increased anxiety, and increased experiences of not being able to concentrate or not being as patient or calm, or even creative,” he says.

Money headaches

According to Barnby, there are three pretty consistent reasons independent musicians face mental health challenges. The first is financial instability. “If you’re going to be a musician, it’s quite a while before you can get to a place where you’re financially stable,” he notes. That kind of stress can not only lead to a lot of anxiety about your financial situation, but can also make it difficult to take the best possible care of yourself. “It might mean that you aren’t able to afford healthcare, or even afford things that might otherwise keep you balanced, like going to the gym,” Barnby says.

Pressure to please

The pressure to perform and resonate with audiences is another prevalent mental-health challenge Barnby identifies in musicians. “Most people go into music probably wanting to make a difference or have their particular brand of music applauded and acknowledged publicly as something that's great—and I think the pressure to get to a point where your music is thought of as good is a long road,” he says. Barnby adds that over time, consistent feelings of inadequacy can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. “I know from talking to other musicians [that] the pressure you're under to keep working is quite high,” he adds.

Self-medication

Finally, Barnby says a culture of self-medication and drug abuse in the music industry poses a unique mental-health challenge to musicians. According to Record Union’s report, among independent music makers that have experienced negative emotions in relation to their music creation, one out of two have self-medicated as a treatment for mental illness. There isn’t enough research to establish that musicians struggle with addiction at a higher rate than the general population, but Barnby acknowledges that the archetype of the hard-partying rock star didn’t develop out of thin air.

“The classic idea of musicians being more open to taking drugs... it is a thing, and of course that can increase your risk of mental illness,” he says. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that taking drugs makes you more creative,” he adds. “[That’s] certainly not the case for everybody, and for some people it [can] actually make them less creative if it disrupts their mental health.”

Power in destigmatization

Barnby’s research specifically focuses on belief systems and how they guide the way we think about ourselves and interact with others. One thing he’s examined is the way problematic beliefs, such as paranoia, can lead people to not trust others and to be unwilling to talk about their emotional experiences—which is one of the things he recommends for preventing mental health symptoms from developing into mental illness.

“Very well-known people are coming out and talking about their mental illness or having experienced poor mental health—it’s [become] less of an embarrassing thing to talk about,” Barnby says. He attributes this cultural shift to a wider understanding of the social and psychological factors that contribute to mental illness, pointing out that if you hurt your leg, there’s no shame in going to see a doctor about it—and the same should be true if you’re suffering psychologically. Barnby proposes that learning to disassociate depression and anxiety from our identities as individuals, the same way we do with physical ailments, is an important step forward.

For musicians in particular, Barnby recommends having a team member that’s dedicated to psychological support. “Like you might have a [physician] on a sports team, having a psychologist on a music touring team wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world,” he says. “You want to develop a culture of people being able to vocalize their vulnerabilities and vocalize how they're feeling, because a lot of the time, just having someone there to compassionately and non-judgmentally listen to what you're saying can really go a long way.”

Barnby also recommends getting in touch with what works and what doesn’t work for you before setting out to achieve certain goals as a musician. “Are you someone that's quite anxious? Are you someone that finds social situations kind of sensitive, or do you have particular fears? Do you sometimes have depressive episodes? If so, then you might be more vulnerable to those experiences given high-stress environments,” he says.

Barnby sees an opportunity for there to be more online resources where musicians can connect with and learn from each other about the things they encounter. “I think most of this stuff is prevention that we can develop for no money at all, just by having free online forums [where] people can discuss what it is that they do and what helps, and normalize this experience of people having poor mental health,” he suggests. “That's okay, and we should talk about that.”

Additional reading and resources

Tips for Managing Your Mental Health How Royal Mountain Records is Supporting Mental Health Healthcare 101: Know Your Resources E-counseling Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration NAMI Helpline 211

—Khalila Douze