Almost every musician navigates unseen barriers in their life and career. In order to shine a light on these issues, Output presents UnMute, a series of online conversations that cover hard-hitting, often undiscussed topics in the music industry. For our second episode, the focal point is mental health in music.
Musicians are disproportionately affected by mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and stress. And, they often don’t know where to turn to ask for help. The pandemic only exacerbated these problems, with many artists seeing their income wiped away overnight. Now, as shows begin to return, what’s changed? And, how are musicians addressing their mental health needs?
We invited musicians Kittens, YehMe2, CRAY, and Erica Krusen, the Managing Director of Mental Health and Addiction Services at MusiCares to the (virtual) table to talk about their personal experiences and what the music industry can do going forward. Watch the conversation in full or read excerpts from it below. And, make sure to follow Output on Twitch to watch further episodes of UnMute.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Output: Let’s start with some stats to frame the context of this conversation. A 2019 study found that nearly three-quarters of independent musicians have experienced stress, anxiety, and/or depression in relation to their work. That number is three times higher than the average for the general population.
Why do you think musicians are disproportionately affected by mental health issues?
CRAY: The list is long. It’s one thing to struggle and be private about it. It’s another thing to struggle with thousands of people looking at you and judging your every move.
Especially on the road. It’s so hard to be a human on the road. You have no time to sit and breathe and say, “Am I okay?” You go from a packed room to alone in a hotel room. Then you barely sleep until the next flight. It really puts a damper on your mental health and relationships.
Kittens: I think we’ve all experienced those contrasts and highs and lows — going from intense energy and feeling validated to isolated and miserable in a quiet hotel room in some random city. I think also there’s uncertainty with self-employed people in general. In most career paths you have a trajectory. You know how much you’re going to make in a year and that you’ll be set when you’re old.
No matter how great your career is and how much engagement you get and how validated you are and how many streams you’re get…it can all change tomorrow. People could just stop caring about you tomorrow. Knowing that in the back of your mind is so terrifying and stress-inducing.
YehMe2: As far as what Kittens said about uncertainty, that’s a huge part for me. It’s something that prevents me from being creative and enjoying this as much. This is a business where I’ve been in so many ups and downs. I’ve gone from headlining Coachella to playing to a hundred people. Once you’ve had a taste of the limelight, you never want to go back. But it does happen.
One thing I’ve noticed…my friends that have careers with a boss can punch out, go home, and turn that part of their brain off to some extent. They might still think about work, but it’s not like us where we’re thinking about work 365 24/7.
What other jobs are there where you’re constantly under review unless you’re a professional athlete or entertainer? In most jobs, there’s a review period. For us, every day is a test.
What do you do when things get too exhausting?
CRAY: I mute everything. I actually don’t look at comments anymore. I felt like that took up so much of my time and clouded my entire vision of myself. It hurt my mental health and how I saw myself in the mirror. I just stopped engaging in looking at those things. I had to close that door.
Kittens: I don’t look because I start obsessing over the negative talk. It’s hard. One comment can stick with me for weeks. I have to find ways to balance it out. I meditate and journal.
Years ago my therapist gave me an exercise that I love doing when I feel down. Set a timer and write a list of good things about yourself. You can repeat the same things over and over again, but write until the timer runs out. It doesn’t have to be corny affirmations. It can be as simple as, “I make really good burritos.”
YehMe2: It’s funny how all the cliché stuff just works. If I am taking a break from social media or screen time, I put a podcast on, do the dishes, pay bills…something to take my mind off of that and get something done. I often come up with song ideas or creative ideas during that time.
A trigger for me is being lazy. If I put my phone down and lay in bed or take a nap, I don’t feel good afterward. I feel like I could have done something. I should have been more productive. I always feel super guilty about it.
Kittens: I do that too. I will legit be on my hands and knees scrubbing the toilet. I realized that’s because in our line of work we don’t have the dopamine rush that comes with finishing a project. There’s no, “I finished a thing and I’m productive and I’m a good person!”
We work on projects for years, sometimes. So finding little ways to give our brain that treat, that pat on the back, helps so much. We can’t always rely on social media for the validation and dopamine that we need. It’s nice to have another option.
Erica: Movement is so important to get out of your head and out of your space. It’s all about redirecting the brain and thoughts. If you’re sitting in a room and fixating on what you were reading, literally pick yourself up and go outside. Go to a different room. We can get stuck in that physical space and get into a rut. It’s important to get on your bike, take a walk, journal, or wash dishes.
YehMe2: I agree one hundred percent that it’s nice to give yourself a little dopamine by crossing something off a list. There’s so much that’s out of our control as touring musicians. But cleaning your house is all you. When it’s done you get to say, “I did that.”
Learn more: How to get financial, addiction, and mental health help from MusiCares if you’re in the music industry
Why is it important for you to talk about mental health?
CRAY: I have a Tuesday Twitch stream where we talk a lot about mental health. It’s something that’s not talked about a lot, especially in music and in gaming. I think artists are seen as people who are famous and successful and happy all the time because of their Instagram posts. It makes us seem like we’re perfect individuals…like we have no mental health problems. I’m always down to have these conversations to bring more light and clarity and acceptance to the topic.
YehMe2: I’m not wearing a badge, but I’m comfortable talking about my mental health. I’ve been in therapy since I was 18. I’m 37 now. Being on Twitter and having that platform and talking about things so openly takes away the stigma of mental health that’s been there for a long time, not only for musicians but also for people of color and men of color. So I feel very comfortable being vulnerable in public.
Kittens: I think representation with all struggles across all facets of identity is so important. I try to amplify my struggles and other people’s struggles so that people can feel less alone. They’re not a crazy mess by themselves. We’re all crazy messes. We’re all doing everything we can to be our best selves and live fulfilling, healthy, balanced lives. The more we talk about the difficulties that we all face as real people, the easier it will be for others to accept themselves and find healthy ways to deal with their own issues.
Erica: MusiCares is trying to make sure that we continue to do everything to help reduce the stigma that exists out there. I think the music industry is doing a fairly decent job of trying to change that, but there’s denial and secrecy that still afflicts so many communities and cultures across the world. The message needs to continue in forums like this and with artists using their platforms.
Learn more: Free mental health and wellness resources for AAPI musicians
How do you navigate a system like the music industry that easily leads to burnout?
YehMe2: You have to develop coping mechanisms. I was in the business for 10 years before I figured out what I needed to do. I thrive on routine. I have to make lists. I have to try and do things in some organized way, which as you know in touring is nearly impossible. For me, that means checking into the hotel as soon as I land, putting on my workout clothes, and getting into the gym. That helps me center myself and get through jet lag.
Kittens: My small thing is cleaning and organizing. Whenever I get to a hotel, I unpack my toiletries. I set everything up in a really pleasing way.
CRAY: I can’t party on the road. I can’t drink on the road. It gets me into a spiral where it makes me sad. Now I want to treat it like a job, like a nine to five in my head. Being able to set small little routines for yourself is really important. I also have a therapist on the road that I Skype with, which is important to me.
Erica: I work with a lot of musicians in private practice and it’s important to make sure you find a good therapist that will text, FaceTime, Skype, etc. And keep with it. It’s amazing how easily you can get into new routines.
YehMe2: You can’t be hard on yourself. You’re not going to be perfect every single time. It is a tough job at the end of the day that is not comparable for a lot of people.
I grew up working class. Most of my friends are union pipefitters. They can’t relate to me in any way, other than the fact that we both like the White Sox and drink beer. It’s hard to complain to them. They’re like, “Yeah, you got that cushy room in the hotel.” So you have to be that person to talk to yourself and say, “Hey man, this is a really hard job.”
Learn more: Seven mindful mental health organizations for musicians
Only about a third of independent musicians who need mental health help ask for it. Why do you think that is?
CRAY: Asking for help is a really hard thing to do. I was pushed to do therapy by my parents when I was 11, so I grew up thinking, “Therapy is great!” But I know people who think therapy is for crazy people. It’s not for crazy people. Everyone needs therapy because everyone has their own shit. I don’t see a lot of artists talking about the therapy they go through.
Erica: Anyone in the music community can call MusiCares and get help. We have a huge network of therapists and psychiatrists and dual diagnosis treatment facilities. It’s amazing to think that a lot of people still don’t know what we do.
We can help find you a good therapist and cover some of the expenses to get you through at least a few months of weekly therapy. Sometimes, more than that. Therapists call us all the time and say, “Hey, I know their grant has ended, but we’re really driving it home right now and they need more.” We have a healthy budget to do that for people. So please know that it exists.
CRAY: I have therapy in my tour budget. It’s easier for your manager to go, “Hey, are you okay? Do you want to talk to someone?” instead of me. Normalizing that conversation within teams is really important.
Kittens: Most musicians, unless you’re killing it, are on some kind of shitty health insurance plan. Then, finding somebody that you feel comfortable with is difficult. I’ve been in therapy since I was a kid. I know what I’m looking for. But, for other people getting up the nerve to ask for help? That’s hard.
How did COVID affect your mental health?
CRAY: It was a rollercoaster. It forced me to relax. The other side is, I’m making no money. Now I’m in debt. It made me rethink everything about my entire life. There were parts that were really beautiful. I got to take a break and focus on my relationship and get a dog.
Kittens: When everything stopped immediately, everyone rushed to live stream. I realized that DJing on live streams severely depressed me. So many people got joy for a minute and felt connected. It made me feel so fucking depressed to be in my room by myself. So I allowed myself to take a break. I had to realize, okay, this isn’t making me money, and it’s not making me feel good, so why the hell am I doing it?
That helped me reassess and realign. What was I doing before that I did not enjoy? What was working? What do I need to pivot? What do I want to do moving forward? At the end of the day, as insane and crazy as this last year and a half has been, I feel really blessed to have a forced break.
YehMe2: The forced break was huge. This was my first real official break. It was so necessary and I loved it. I was happy to not have to deal with the tug of war with childcare. My co-parent also travels for work. We have to juggle schedules. Sometimes we get booked on the same day and have to choose who takes the booking.
Now with things picking back up, I’m suffering and full of anxiety about what it’s going to be like when I have to go back on the road. For the last year and a half, I’ve really enjoyed being able to take my kids to school, take them to sports, and do other things that they have right on schedule. I’m going to miss it now that things are going back to normal.
How are you dealing with shows coming back?
CRAY: I have a tour coming up and I’ve been talking about it with my therapist at length because even social settings are anxiety-inducing. Even socializing as a DJ again backstage. I forgot how to act as a person.
I think having a whole year of no shows has allowed me to say no. It’s normalized not being on the road. I can turn down shitty shows that I don’t want to do. I had a year of no shows and survived. I can say no. I don’t have to miss a birthday. I don’t have to miss Christmas this year again. I think I can handle this. It gave me that validation that it’s okay to skip on things.
YehMe2: No is really powerful in our industry. It’s a privilege to be able to say no. Obviously, you have to be in a financial situation where you can pick and choose, but in the end, it will drive your price up to be able to say no.
Erica: Talk to your management. Talk to your team and figure out how to make some balance going forward. I’m hearing a lot of artists say, “I’m not doing that grind again. I’m going to make these shows count. You’re not going to have me do a show in Detroit and then do one in Los Angeles the next day. Let’s talk about this routing differently.”
Learn more: Check out our comprehensive mental health resources list for BIPOC musicians
How do you tell the difference between a bad day and needing help?
Kittens: Keep track of it. Journaling has been really helpful for me over the years. I force myself to do it daily. It helps me go back and say, is this a pattern? Is this a larger issue? Is this something that I should address? Or, is it situational? Even if it is situational, is it still something to explore and acknowledge in a more meaningful way?
YehMe2: I can be hard on myself when it comes to depression. I don’t want to admit it because then it becomes real and then I have to deal with it. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that there are some things I call my canaries in the coal mine. If I’m eating poorly or if I’m drinking excessively, then it’s a bigger issue. I think that comes with experience and living with depression, but try to see tangible things that only happen in a depressive episode versus a bad day.
Erica: The more we talk about it, the more people will reach out to you and be that bridge for someone else. Don’t try and diagnose. Just say, “Hey, tell me what’s going on.” Tell management to do that with their artists too.
What last words would you like to say to everyone?
YehMe2: No matter how hard it seems, no matter how tough things get, it will always be alright. All you have to do is keep going. That’s the most important part of any career or any relationship. Be present, be mindful, and keep moving.
CRAY: Be really self-aware and honest with yourself and realize it’s okay to not be okay. Know that we all are going through the exact same things you are going through. We are not above anybody. Know that your favorites are dealing with the same exact struggles you are. You’re not alone. It’s okay to ask for help and get help. It’s hard to make the first step, but once you do, it’s smooth sailing.
Kittens: One thing that has brought me a lot of comfort is knowing that everything is temporary. The good and the bad. Nothing is going to stay hard and miserable forever. You can rely on change to come always.
Erica: And there’s help. There are a lot of resources. Anyone listening out there that is any music professional, not just an artist — go to MusiCares. We can help.