It was really difficult to find industry-specific advice on how to manage emotional turbulence as a working artist. At the time, my old band Nat Col & the Kings were supported by a team of loyal friends who were running solely on the fuel of love. I didn’t want to burden them with my struggles, and the ones that I reached out to during the blackest of times didn’t know how to help. Maybe if I had the right support around me, I would have learnt my lessons while still pursuing my artistic passions. Who knows. Years later, I’m looking at an email notification advertising a panel on mental health held by APRA AMCOS in conjunction with Support Act. A foundation set up to assist the creative industry when times get heavy. It featured psychologist Dr Chris Stevens, The Jezabels Hayley Mary and Joanna Cave from Support Act. If this were four years ago, I’d have jumped into attendance like it was a life raft. But I cruised in as a curious spectator, having already danced with many demons.
World rattling moments can leave us believing that we are going insane, or at the very least, are deeply flawed. Personally, this was a belief that fed anxiety. With mental health being a topic branded too deep for the collective, my thoughts had become the loudest voice. It took me years to engrain a more productive and realistic way to brand my situation – that this is all part of “being human”, and therefore a growing experience. So it’s an understatement to say that I’m sensitive to labels like “mental illness”, “mental disease” and even depression, particularly if they are used by people who I respect. I consequently spent the first 15 minutes flinching in my seat trying to digest these terms as they resonated off the stage. Mindful of the love and warmth behind them, I remind myself that maybe the use of these labels are more a means of communicating efficiently. Perhaps the terms “Emotional and mental struggles” don’t embody the same cry for help. My guard soon began to drop, and I was able to absorb the wisdom.
The fundamentals were highlighted in order to demystify. As musicians we forget what our minds and bodies go through when we tour. Poor sleep, lack of exercise, shitty food, adrenalin highs and lows that come with performing, nerves, schedule pressures, being away from home and out of routine etc. These alone should be enough of an explanation as to why the heavy fog can creep in post tour. Hayley shares a bit on the invasiveness of public curiosities and opinions during fragile times. The importance of connection and seeking help from mental health professionals was discussed and crowd questions allowed things to become more specific.
A few topics that stood out – The power of music therapy, isolated environments particularly in the world of screen composing, general industry worries from those who have a clouded outlook, and the myth of needing to live (suffer) through the experiences one wants to write about in order to best connect with the listener. Hayley reiterates the power of imagination and I’m cosmically struck as Dr Chris almost mirrors the words of a previous blog entry, “Just wait.. You will suffer!” Finally, someone fires a thought that I’m sure many had on their minds that sparked a conversation on how awareness of mental health has unintendedly pathologised the challenges of life. The importance of seeing mental health as a continuum by which we move up and down. I could relate to the advice given on how our perception of stress dictates our emotional reaction. But a question stubbornly cycled my head, eventually drowning out the voices around me. “Self, are you really going to make me put my hand up and try to compete with all these eloquently spoken people?!” Coincidently, Dr Chris gives advice on stage fright and public speaking. Spectacular timing. I’m literally playing out his strategy as he explains it. Heart is racing but I’m lightened by the irony. Hand goes up. Half up.
My own inner strategist moves in with the “half hander” – The one that tells everyone to lower their expectations of the asker. A lady behind educates me on proper hand raising technique. “I’m shy. My question isn’t important. It’s all good!”. It returns home to its warm cider glass. The moderator points behind me, “The lady here has a question”. A microphone is walked in where she admits her kind deception “…The gentleman in front of me was too shy to put his hand up”. Boom! I’m in it now. Crowd laughter guides my nerves into the right place. “Hey…”
I wanted insight on how much an artist should mentally and emotionally rely on the support team around them – crew, management, band members. Attempting to stay anonymous (I hate self-plugging), I fire the question at Hayley, and I’m flattered that she is aware of my history in music without having introduced myself.
“Yes, you are in a business relationship, but your crew have to be your friends and your manager has to be your friend and I rely on them immensely…I found I built this closeness up with the crew or the band by being vulnerable…by just sharing when I feel really low, and most people with any sense of decency are going to be there. It’s on you to express it.”
When I added a part B to my question to include an opinion on whether it’s part of the manager’s role to offer such support, she said:
“This is a new time. When I had what I would consider one of the biggest crisis’ I’ve had, my manager (I love him and bless him and he’s gone and read that book…and he’s completely changed his mind and understanding of it), he didn’t give it the same weight that he did a physical illness at the time.” To which Dr Chris talks of his recent work in educating managers on the basics of psychology in order to elevate emotional intelligence in such situations. “You get to the managers, you get to the artists”. he says.
Whilst I didn’t walk away with any new techniques, the power of the knowledge I’ve gained over these self-developmental years was again validated, and the sense of community around the topic helped to dissolve the alienation that can inflame mental struggles. With extra insight into the roles that a management team plays in preserving artist wellbeing, my dreams seem that little bit more realistic.
Question…I wonder whether the use of titles such as “mental illness” are a manifestation of people not treating mental and emotional struggles as serious as an injury? Do you think the use of these terms are for the better or worse in the long run?
Photo by Stuart Miller – Instagram_stuartmillerphoto