Musicians of all stripes suffer from mental health issues, just like everyone else on this planet. However, they are more likely NOT to seek help, fearing that meds would tamp down their creativity and, in most cases, not having any health insurance to pay for therapy or treatment even if they did seek help. In response to a rash of suicides by musicians and the pandemic’s crushing blow to many an artist’s livelihood, new organizations and efforts within the music community (if not the music industry) have begun to step forward. David Konow takes a look at the playing field for PKM.
In 2017, a charity from the United Kingdom named Help Musicians conducted a survey. The study was called “Can Music Make You Sick?” And, according to a report about the survey in Billboard, 71% of the musicians polled said they suffered from anxiety, and 69% said they battled depression; furthermore, 57% of the people polled said they went untreated, and 53% said they had a hard time finding the right treatment.
This eye-opening study was conducted not long after Chris Cornell, of Soundgarden and Audioslave, and Chester Bennington, of Stone Temple Pilots and Linkin Park, committed suicide within months of each other in 2017. Some mental health experts and music fans have pointed to their deaths as a tipping point for the music business, a time when it had to collectively take action to raise mental health awareness before more casualties occur.
These days, we’re seeing a greater emphasis on mental health awareness, with many well-known film, music and sports figures publicly speaking out and encouraging people to seek help. While many high-profile people can successfully keep their mental health struggles hidden from the world, it often sounds like an open wound within the metal and punk community, the anger, frustration and desperation all right there on the surface.
In the not too distant past, the thought of a metal or punk musician spending time on a psychiatrist couch would have seemed ludicrous, but in recent years that perception has changed greatly. Mental health wasn’t part of the conversation decades ago, but that’s changed with bands like Metallica going into therapy, and shows like The Therapist on Vice, where Dr. Siri Sat Nam has psychiatry sessions with artists of all musical stripes, from metal to hip-hop.
So there has indeed been a strong outcry for artists to get help and for the music industry to have a stronger support system for them; that outcry has only gotten louder since the pandemic. For this story, we spoke to a number of varied sources about their own personal mental health struggles, how they’ve approached healing themselves and others, and what can be done to give musicians a healthier future.
As most metal and punk fans can tell you, there’s often a real sense of community in both scenes, where there’s a large group of alienated, disenfranchised misfits that recognize so much in each other. As Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante explains, “With metal music in general, there’s a bond we all have as fans. If I’m walkin’ down the street, and I see somebody wearing an Iron Maiden shirt, I already know that I have something in common with them, and we can open up and talk. Because that’s the thing about heavy metal, it’s not for everybody, and a lot of times it was for outcasts.”
Metalheads and punks often sense the same feelings of alienation and the same hatred of conforming to the mainstream. And in many cases, the fans also recognize that they suffer from the same mental health disorders as well.
Sascha Altman DuBrul was an angry middle-class kid growing up in the west side of Manhattan, and punk spoke to him loudly and clearly. “I liked the music, it was angry and fast,” he says. “I was into it because it made me feel like I was part of something, something that was underground, that wasn’t mainstream. I also had a sense that there were a bunch of other people out there (like me). It’s a lonely world, and finding other people that you can relate to is important.”
Punk always had a you can do this too attitude that inspired many to launch their own bands, and DuBrul eventually played bass in the popular New York group Choking Victim. DuBrul also suffers from bipolar disorder and was committed three times to hospitals in New York after going through several psychotic episodes.
Eventually, DuBrul got a bachelor’s degree, and as reported in a Salon profile, he went to work at the New York State Psychiatric Institute as “a wounded healer.” Having been through the mental health system, DuBrul could offer an inside perspective on trying to help people with mental health disorders.
The punk attitude of challenging society’s norms also formed DuBrul’s perspective on mental health treatment as well. “Being institutionalized, the things that I had been through, the therapy I’d had, I didn’t really feel like it was helping me,” DuBrul says. “I wanted to create something that did. It wasn’t because I got help and I wanted to help other people. It was more like the help that’s out there isn’t helping people, it wasn’t helping me, and I wanted to start something new.”
For Joseph Penola, who created the You Rock Foundation, a suicide prevention organization, extreme music spoke to him, and it made him realize he wasn’t alone in the darkness. Penola knew how to get in touch with a number of artists through his previous job in artists relations, and having survived several suicide attempts, he had connections in the mental health community as well. Tapping into both connections, he conducted a series of powerful interviews where a number of metal, punk and rap artists spoke openly about their mental health struggles. “I connected the two elements and realized that one could help the other,” he says.
In putting these interviews together, Penola says, “I wanted a black backdrop, nothing to distract the eye, and I wanted you to feel like you’re in the room with the artist and having an intimate conversation with them that would be impossible at a meet and greet. And these videos have done what they were intended to do, which is make people feel less alone, to show them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and show them they’re stronger than they know.”
When musicians speak out about their troubles, you hope that others can recognize themselves in their stories and, as Penola relates, “I was able to find myself in almost every one of the people I spoke with.”
In one You Rock video, Corey Taylor of Slipknot spoke openly about a suicide attempt when he was 17. Jonathan Davis of Korn also spoke candidly about dealing with anxiety and depression. Davis explained that suffering from depression “is like walking around with a giant lead blanket on you. Nothing excites you like it used to.” Davis finally got on meds, but he acknowledged it “was just the start of the battle.”
And as Ben Weinman from The Dillinger Escape Plan said in his interview, “Unlike a physical injury, where you know what you have to do to take care of it, things like depression aren’t that easy. But there are ways to get help and you shouldn’t be afraid to get help. Psychology and the chemistry of your mind are a science.”
Ultimately the You Rock interviews end with a note of hope, providing living proof that you can make it to the other side. “My mother could have said the most inspirational thing ever, but because she was my mother, I wouldn’t give her the same attention,” Penola says. “I wouldn’t hear her words the same way as I would have heard Corey Taylor of Slipknot. When he’s talking, no one’s judging him, everyone’s supportive, and if he can share, I can share, too, especially seeing the reception he got. That’s why I think it’s so powerful that these musicians have stepped off the pedestal we’ve put them on and have gotten really raw for these interviews.”
In the mid-Eighties, a new form of music started breaking out of the underground. Called thrash metal, it had the speed, aggression and social awareness of punk, As Jonny Zazula, the metal mogul who discovered Metallica and Anthrax explains, “Metal is foreground music, and foreground music is music you have to pay attention to. You have to participate in it. I’ve seen some of the angriest people go to shows, and leave the mosh pit loving everybody.”
Zazula is also bipolar, and the illness proved to be a terrible double-edged sword for him as well. He used the manic side of his illness to fuel his drive and build his record label, Megaforce, as well as his management company, which handled Ministry, Testament, Anthrax, to name a few. But manic depression also played a hand in destroying his business as well.
“When you’re bipolar, when you’re depressed, you’re very, very down and very tired,” Zazula says. “But the other side of it is you can be more creative than normal. That’s what helped me achieve my goals. I was on a high from being bipolar for many years. Instead of getting depressed, my mechanism would be to achieve. But the depression also cost me my company, it cost me dearly.”
A lot of people who suffer from mental illness can’t fully grasp what they’re going through, and as Zazula explains, “That’s what it was like for me in the beginning. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here? Is it possible I can feel so miserable? Why can’t I feel better? No matter what I do, I can’t feel better’.”
Zazula finally sought help about twenty years ago, and like many trying to tackle the illness, it took time to find the meds that worked. “I went to many doctors until they gave me the right prescriptions that actually worked. In the beginning you’re like a guinea pig. It either doesn’t work, or it’s too extreme for you, you get addicted to it, and it’s like heroin trying to get off it. There are all kinds of problems with the drugs you take when you’re bipolar or have manic depression.”
Another stumbling block is the stigma many still have about mental health issues. The stigma. It’s a term that pops up a lot. Penola even uses the term “coming out” in describing musicians and celebrities coming forward about their mental health struggles. “It’s not quite the same as coming out about your sexuality, but I think there are similarities in the pressures people feel they have to hide,” he says. “I think there’s still a stigma, but it’s far weaker than it used to be. The more people that share their experiences, the weaker the stigma gets. I hope it gets to the point when talking about depression is like talking about having a cold.”
“There is a taboo about it,” Zazula agrees. “There are many musicians who don’t want to take medicine because they think only crazy people take medicine and only crazy people see psychiatrists. So there is a stigma about it, but people should be treated.”
Many musicians also fear that taking meds and seeking help with dilute their music and make them less creative. However, from Zazula’s experience, he says, “You’ll find a new norm, and with that new norm you’ll (still) be creative. It might set you back a while, but it will work, you’ll be alright.”
When James Hetfield, the lead singer and riff master general of Metallica, went into therapy, no one was more surprised than Hetfield himself. Throughout his life, Hetfield had a lot of issues he usually drowned in alcohol, but he finally went into therapy when his wife kicked him out of the house and demanded he get help. The band was falling apart as well, and losing one family was hard enough, but there was no way he was going to lose two.
Coming out of rehab, Hetfield was in a vulnerable state, and as the band was writing and recording their album St. Anger, they worked closely with life coach Phil Towle. Director Joe Berlinger (America Undercover: Paradise Lost) was there to document the making of the album, but the resulting film, Some Kind of Monster, turned out to be a groundbreaking work that showed a band bravely and openly getting help. It also showed that Hetfield seeking help was a sign of strength, not weakness. As KJ Doughton, a long-time friend of the band, said, “To many, Hetfield is the ultimate icon of strength, but he’s only human.”
Looking back on the experience, Hetfield told Guitar World, “At one point during therapy I realized how much my life was fucked up, how many secrets I had, how incongruent my life was…It did stir up the mud, and the water was very thick with mud at that point. I think it was part of what saved Metallica, without a doubt.”
Towle admits he initially had reservations about the film crew being there. “I always have apprehensions going into something new and challenging,” he says. “When the film crew came along, yeah, I was concerned about it. But by then I felt, as (drummer) Lars Ulrich said, the filming is truth serum, and I felt we had gone far enough with each other that the filming would force us to focus, and it could actually be an asset. I felt fear and insecurity, but I’ve learned a long time ago that my best moves are done when I’m afraid.”
When asked if he felt Some Kind of Monster broke new ground, Towle says, “I look at it more that way now. When I was in the middle of it, it was about how can I help? But Metallica are pioneers for sure. They allowed themselves to be filmed in a way that gave permission to other artists (to get help).”
Trying to get your mental health together can be hard enough, but when the pandemic hit, it threw a huge monkey wrench into everything. A recent report on CNBC states that depression rates have tripled since the pandemic hit, and a report in The Economist tells us that depression cases have gone up a whopping 53 million globally.
When many people suffer from addiction and mental illness, there’s many established methods that can help solve the problem. Yet the isolation, paranoia and fear that came with the pandemic created a whole new ballgame, especially for musicians.
In today’s music business, where no one pays for music anymore, bands have to tour like crazy to survive. When the pandemic shut down touring, a lot of musicians got stuck at home with way too much time on their hands, and no way to earn money.
Like everyone else, Charlie Benante watched in horror as the pandemic quickly spread throughout the world. Once the virus started spreading to Italy and Spain, Benante thought, “Oh man, that’s fucked up. Let’s hope it doesn’t come here.” Sure enough, it soon hit the States, and as Benante continues, “I was glued to the TV, I was glued to the phone. One of the biggest problems was the person in charge of the country. I was just freaking out, ‘Oh no, he’s definitely not gonna be able to handle this,’ and then it became a shit show. It became politicized and then I knew we were fucked with this. It became an hour for him to be on television, just talking stupid shit again, and nothing was getting done.”
Benante’s girlfriend, Carla Harvey, who is also a grief counselor, got him to channel his fear and anxiety into music and art again. “My girlfriend said to me, ‘You gotta shut this off because look what it’s doing to you. You have so much anxiety, you have so much stress,’ because we weren’t getting answers. We were spooked.”
Benante launched a new solo project, Silver Linings, and set up virtual quarantine jams with his friends who could all play together on songs without leaving the safety of their homes. “I’d call different people, ‘Hey what’s goin’ on, you wanna do this with me?’ ‘Yes! How do I do it?’ I had to give them instructions, and basically it was ‘let’s have fun, take our minds off things for a bit.’ For me it was very cathartic, it was like therapy.” (The jams included a tribute to Neil Peart, the late drummer of Rush, as well as a Fear cover, “I Don’t Care About You,” with the group’s singer Lee Ving, and songs from S.O.D., the irreverent hardcore side project Charlie and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian put together in the mid-Eighties.)
While many bands have taken off on the road again, touring is still in a state of flux, with musicians constantly getting sick from COVID and having to cancel shows left and right. “Anthrax are doing these festivals, and I have to be very careful,” Benante says. “You don’t know what’s gonna happen with this variant because you can be vaccinated and still test positive. That’s another fear. I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I don’t want to transfer it to her, but I still have to do these shows because I have to work.”
Panola says, “In my circle, I’ve seen people talk about mental health more often than they used to” since the virus hit. “A big part of that is the fact that some people weren’t experiencing these things before. They didn’t know what depression and anxiety were like, and they’re now experiencing it for the first time because of the pandemic. I don’t know how these things break down statistically, but I’m sure that it has became a bigger conversation globally because we’ve had an increased number of people experiencing this.”
Social media has become another double-edged sword with mental health, but it’s also become necessary during quarantine. While social media can open up a vortex of trolling, a lot of younger people feel more comfortable reaching out through social media for mental health advice, often anonymously.
DuBrul says, “A lot of younger people are finding each other and communicating through the net, but people also need to be around other human beings,” which of course had been impossible in the worst parts of the pandemic. “When you went to a punk show, you danced with other people. People are more and more isolated now, and a lot of mental illness has to do with life stress because the world is changing in complicated directions.”
So where does mental health awareness for musicians go from here? Sooner or later, musicians will have to tour to earn a living, with the added stress of the pandemic still looming over everyone’s shoulders. What can the industry do to help, and how can things be done differently in the future?
Penola pointed to one example of how bands can help their fans with their mental health issues. You Rock worked with a group called IAMX, who did mental health gatherings before their gigs. “They had a separate event prior to the show, a small, intimate gathering of fans and artists talking about mental health, sharing their stories, and getting advice on how to manage it,” Penola explains. “It was beautiful to watch. I think the world needs more of that, and more artists should take a page out of that book.”
Towle also recommends a preventive maintenance approach where bands should seek help early in their careers before things get out of hand down the road.
“What the record companies and agencies should be doing is hiring mental health people to work with the groups as they form, or work with the artists when they sign them up, not wait for what could happen later,” he says. “Usually, we wait until there’s a catastrophe with the environment, the government, our infrastructure, and we wait until there’s a catastrophe with our emotional well-being. That’s a sign of humanity’s dependence on chaos. We need to accompany the beginnings of success. I think it can be done, but the people who have the money have to be able to invest in that.”
Ultimately, as Penola concludes, “People need to be brave enough to have a conversation that matters, and musicians are some of the best people to do that. Music is the ultimate corkscrew for everything we bottle up, and musicians have that corkscrew at their disposal.”
[Editor’s note]: “BE GOOD TO YOURSELF”
That’s the name of a state-centric project shepherded by veteran music writer Ed Bumgardner in North Carolina that could serve as a template for all the other 49 states (and the District of Columbia). It’s a benefit double-CD with 23 songs performed by North Carolina musicians, the proceeds from which go to provide psychiatric help to their state’s musicians dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems.
“Two years ago, in the fall of 2019, I quietly started what was supposed to be a quick recording project between five friends – Chris Garges, Rob Slater, Gino “Woo Funk” Grandinetti, Doug Davis and myself. Assisted by a few musical compatriots scattered about North Carolina, we sat down in Old House Studio in Charlotte to create a 10-song album dedicated to helping uninsured NC musicians in need of mental-health care. We had all lost friends to suicide or substance abuse. All were struggling with depression.
Our hope was that, through music, we might make a difference.”
[The liner notes for Be Good To Yourself were written by PKM contributor, Parke Puterbaugh.]