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Creativity and Depression - Are they intertwined?

*Note* Before starting my job creating visual media, I spent most of my life playing music - performing, song writing, and the inevitable weddings & corporate events. The link between depression and creativity in general has often had me wondering. I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, but it never saw the light of day.

A study conducted in 2016 found that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public. “Can Music Make You Sick?” was the largest study of musicians’ mental health ever undertaken, by the University of Westminster and music charity, Help Musicians UK. But do the facts really add up? And is this solely an issue for musicians, or the wider spectrum of creatives in general?

Out of 2211 participants in the study, a huge 71% suggested they have experienced panic attacks or higher levels of anxiety in the last year. This is clearly an issue, as I've long speculated. It is worth noting however, that participants in the study self-selected. It begs the question, is a musician in a high state of contentment really going to take the time to answer questions in a mental health survey? Much like with trip advisor reviews, people are far more likely to express their opinion when they feel negatively about something. No one really bothers to leave a review for a good meal, do they? That isn’t to say that this isn’t a subject worth investigating, just that we should be interpreting results with caution.

I interviewed a musician from Brighton, John, who spoke of the negative impact working in the music industry has had on his mental health. “It really comes down to how a musician sits within a society” says John, “Most people don't understand what it means to be a working musician.” The clichés of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are rarely seen during a musician’s working week (well unfortunately not for me anyway..!). More realistic would be sitting in Cobham Services at 2am stuffing McDonalds into your face as you had to skip dinner, for the second time that week. Another musician I spoke to, Richard, feels similarly; “the music industry has definitely had a negative effect on my well-being, the lack of routine, the irregular working hours.”

One thing is for sure, nothing is certain in the music industry. Indeed, precarity of earnings ranked highest in the causes of anxiety in the survey. Perhaps this feeling of uncertainty does little for those surrounded by it. “I’m constantly being self-critical” says Richard. It’s a valid point to make. This constant state of reflection must surely take its toll. When an estate agent works, they are selling a house, when a musician works, they are selling themselves. Similarly, John expressed; “I often have feelings of inadequacy, the desire to succeed can make someone feel constant tension, pressure and stress, which eventually can deteriorate mental health”.

Back to our estate agent analogy (I have nothing against estate agents). If an estate agent is selling a house and the viewer says “I’m not particularly keen on the layout, and perhaps a bigger kitchen would be nice” it wouldn’t be a particularly personal issue. Criticism of a song that may have taken months to write, produce, record, mix, master and release rightfully would be harder to swallow. So perhaps this idea that by nature creative types are often under the constant bombardment of personal criticism may play a part.

Defining success

To be successful... What does it mean? In most work places you find a nice sturdy ladder to climb. Logical steps of progression, each with their equally logical pay bracket. Ask 10 musicians to define success and you would probably receive 10 different answers. I’m sure if you spoke to three music managers as to how they would manage a band, you would also receive three equally different answers. The uncertainty we spoke about earlier certainly isn’t helped by lack of clear direction. There is no path in the music industry, each journey is completely different, a set of goal posts that can move erratically day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month. This may be exciting for some, but too unpredictable for others.

Unfortunately for musicians currently, the entire industry is in a huge state of transition. Thanks to streaming platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, it has become an almost necessary requirement for musicians to give their music away for free (you’ll forgive me for not including the $0.006 a musician receives per Spotify stream). A musician or band that could support themselves through touring and CD sales 15 years ago would now be required to work additional jobs to get by. Maybe our idols from another generation created a vision of the music industry that can no longer be attained.

Although perhaps not on the scale suggested by the survey, depression and mental health difficulties within the creative sector is clearly a problem that requires addressing. So how best to combat it? First must come the honest and open acknowledgment of the problem. If nothing else, surveys such as 'Can music make you sick?', despite the provocative headline, help bring the area of need into the public domain and raise awareness for what was once (and some might argue still is) a subject surrounded by stigma.

In such a potentially exploitative and judgmental career choice, the path to greater well-being could come from education and therapy (if only this was more easily accessible). Surely cognitive behavioural techniques could provide the answer to some issues, for example accepting criticism or dealing with perceived failures. It also doesn’t take a genius to know that late nights, unsocial hours, and exposure to alcohol go hand in hand with fatigue and mental fragility. Until the multi-million dollar streaming companies start paying out, I can’t see much changing. The question was always ‘Is it better to burn out or fade away?’ well maybe, just maybe, the answer should be neither.


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