UT study on musicians’ depression ‘puts tortured artist myth to bed’

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, partnered alongside Austin’s SIMS Foundation, found that work and financial stress on musicians may increase their chances of anxiety and clinical depression. 

These findings point to the fact that musicians can be more productive if they are mentally healthy and that they don’t need to uphold the “tortured artist” trope in solitude, the lead professor on this study said.

“Musicians are often portrayed in the media as ‘tortured artists’ who intentionally embrace emotional suffering as a source of creative inspiration – or their lifestyles are glamorized as being untroubled and self-indulgent,” said Berg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School.

“But the truth is they struggle with lots of job stressors including unpredictable work opportunities, low wages and juggling multiple jobs just to survive,” explained Berg, who is also a bass player. 

Berg led these researchers to survey 317 musicians in Austin from many different genres who had received mental health services from SIMS over the past two years. 

They found when comparing to people who have lower levels of stress, musicians with higher levels of work-related stress were more than twice as likely to have significant levels of depression and anxiety.

Additionally, the researchers found that musicians with higher levels of job insecurity were more than five times as likely to be depressed and six times as likely to suffer from anxiety. Musicians with higher levels of stress related to work relationships were more than 1.5 times as likely to report alcohol abuse.

Job insecurity and financial stress fuel these increased risks for mental illness, Berg explained. He noted that musicians cited their stress as coming from things like insufficient pay, a shortage of work,  worries about colleagues showing up on time and having to fire another musician.

Berg hopes that both musicians and the mental health professionals working with them keep an eye out for these risk factors for mental illness.

Things to look out for could include: a musician saying they don’t know when their next gig might be, knowing that they’re working for low wages, or having to be on tour and being separated from loved ones. 

Berg’s previous research on this subject also found that musicians who get mental health support from a provider who is familiar with the stresses in their industry find that care to be satisfying and beneficial.

He said it’s important that if musicians are getting treatment, the treatment should be affordable, accessible and offered by providers who understand the complicated mix of factors that weigh on musicians.

Berg explained that being a music professional is a uniquely stressful profession, even more so than the general public realizes. 

“They commit suicide far more than physicians for example,” he said.

Previous research on musicians’ mental health showed that musicians are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to the general population and three times more likely to die by suicide. 

Even if you’re not a doctor, Berg said there are things you can do to boost the well-being of your local musicians. 

“Go out and see some live music, when you do, please tip the band, and also, during break, please let your band know how much you appreciate what they are doing,” Berg said. 

Berg added that these findings are especially applicable in Austin, the “live music capital of the world.” 

“Musicians are the lifeblood of the Austin community, musicians are just as important to the Austin community as Barton Springs and the bats under the South Congress bridge, and it’s incumbent on us to take care of the precious resources we have here,” Berg said. 

Guy Forsyth, an Austin musician with around 30 years of experience performing in town, explained that while the cost of living has increased in Austin, what musicians are paid has stayed relatively constant. 

“I’m one accident or sickness from being homeless,” he said, which he added is an even greater stressor when he factors in his wife, Jeska Forsyth, also an Austin musician, and their two children. 

“Suddenly the thing that used to make you $30,000 a year, is bringing in like $4,000 a year,” he explained. 

Guy Forsyth and his wife Jeska Forsyth, both musicians, look at upcoming performers at Austin's Saxon Pub. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard). 

Both he and his wife receive counseling through SIMS. Forsyth said that he has personally experienced both anxiety and depression; most of his friends in the music business have as well. 

“I know how hard the situation is, and how scary it is, and how easy the temptation is to numb yourself through alcohol or other drugs when things can look hopeless,” he said. 

“Having someone to talk to and being able to work on your issues with someone who is trained to deal with it makes a tremendous difference, just knowing somebody cares can have a fabulous effect,”  Forsyth added. 

The nonprofit SIMS Foundation works to support the mental health of Austin musicians, music professionals, and their families with free and low-cost services. 

“The results of this study put the tortured artist myth to bed, and hopefully directs musicians to address their mental health with interventions that address the unique stressors musicians face,” said Heather Alden, executive director of the SIMS Foundation.

Alden explained that SIMS serves around 600 musicians a year. She added that the nonprofit has a network of more than a hundred mental health providers in the area who have expertise with supporting musicians, as well as two licensed counselors on staff to direct patients to the right kind of care. 

Of all the services they offer, Alden said that counseling and drug treatment services are used most often. 

She added that SIMS will work to educate their providers about how to apply the findings in the study and better address their health through assessing details about a musician’s financial status or relationships.  

If you or someone you know would benefit from SIMS services, you’re asked to call 512-494-1007. 

A release from Dell Medical School notes that there is a “limited body” of research on musician mental health, and the medical school researchers involved want to see more focus on the topic in the future. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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