Survey suggests Atlantic Canadian musicians suffer from mental health issues at ‘alarming rates’

The 2012 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey estimated 21.6 per cent of Canada’s population met the criteria for a substance use disorder. The numbers reported by ECMA survey respondents were worryingly higher.

When asked about the prevalence of alcohol and drug use, 50 per cent of ECMA survey respondents said they were concerned or “had been concerned” about their own personal drug or alcohol use. In addition, 38 per cent said that others had been concerned about their use.

“This indicates, through self reporting measures, that East Coast music Industry professionals are at-risk from substance abuse disorder,” the ECMA survey notes.

In addition to key pieces like financial insecurity, the social isolation caused by late night gigs and alcohol and drug use, MacLellan said the notion that artists should be “expected” to have mental health struggles is a harmful myth that continues to be perpetuated.

“I think for the most part in the music industry it’s environmental,” she said. “It’s not helpful for people to think it’s OK for artists to be mentally ill, for this romanticized notion of mental illness in artists to continue. I think it’s important to get past that.”

MacLellan said although she’s seen a positive shift in recent years as conversations about mental health and wellness become more common, the stigma continues.

“I’ve met a lot of people (in the industry) that have pretty serious mental illness struggles that are afraid to say it publicly.”

MacLellan said she speaks openly about her struggles with her peers and also when she’s on stage.

“It started out just kind of sporadically, I’d say something about my dad or something about my own struggles, and then inevitably people would come up afterwards and say thank you for talking about it, because it helps them in a way,” MacLellan recalled.

“Hearing that time after time made me feel like not only is it good to talk about it, but now I feel a responsibility to be a voice in what used to be a pretty silent sea.”

The ECMA mental health survey’s clinical lead author Errin Williams said what surprised her most about the results was the amount of suicidal thoughts music industry professionals reported having.

“It’s disproportionate. There’s reason to be concerned,” the Halifax-based private practice clinical therapist said in an interview.

The ECMA’s voluntary qualitative survey was conducted online between May and August 2018 and garnered the participation of 50 members representing singer/songwriters, musicians and other industry professionals. The ECMA describes it as the first survey of its kind in the region.

“At this point we were looking at kind of an introduction, kind of a snapshot of what was going on,” Williams said.

In addition to the number of ECMA members experiencing suicidal thoughts, Williams said she was also surprised by the low levels of income reported by the region’s music industry professionals.

More than half the survey respondents indicated they’re living below the poverty line, with 25 per cent making less than $10,000 per year. Williams said because research has consistently shown living in poverty is a negative indicator for mental health outcomes, this is deeply concerning.

“I had always known anecdotally people had lower incomes in the arts, but I guess I didn’t realize just how low some people’s incomes were,” she said.

Survey participants didn’t identify as students, and most were between 25 and 44 years old.

Williams said the survey highlights a music industry phenomenon with roots that extend far beyond Atlantic Canada.

She points to a 2016 report from the UK commissioned by a charitable organization called Help Musicians UK. That survey of 2,211 self-identifying professional musicians found that musicians there were up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public.

“It says that there’s something going on more globally,” Williams said.

Williams also hopes to be involved in followup research more closely examining what aspects of their lives impact the ability of Atlantic Canadian music industry professionals to maintain mental wellness.

Recommendations made in light of the ECMA survey results include a need for a more comprehensive survey around suicide in the industry and assistance for members seeking access to long term, non-crisis-based clinical therapy.

MacLellan wonders how differently things might have turned out for her father had he felt free to talk about his struggles or seek help.

“There wasn’t any language for him to talk about it with friends or anybody, and it was certainly frowned upon,” she said.

“I hope he’d be proud of what I’m doing. I think he’d be glad just that there are more people talking about it. I guess my biggest wish if I could go back in the past would be for him to be able to find the help that I was able to find.”

MacLellan said she sees the ECMA survey as a small step on a long road.

“We really need to be addressing this in a meaningful way to change the culture, to find things within the industry that can help our members with tools, and programs, and just support generally,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s a really good first step. But there’s a long road ahead of us.”

The survey results will be made available via the ECMA website.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team at 902-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167. A list of mental health resources available throughout the province can be found online via the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia website.

Yvette d’Entremont is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on health. Follow her on Twitter: @ydentremont




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