New East Coast music industry survey on mental health reveals 'a lot of people are struggling'

The first of its kind in Canada, the East Coast Music Association survey reveals 40 per cent of East Coast musicians report being diagnosed with a mental health disorder; one-fifth report having suicidal thoughts.

Survey reveals 40 per cent of East Coast musicians report being diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The first of its kind in Canada, the East Coast Music Association survey reveals 40 per cent of East Coast musicians report being diagnosed with a mental health disorder; one-fifth report having suicidal thoughts. (StockSnap/Pixabay)

"That whole idea of the tortured artist should be put to bed. It's tired, and it's not true."

Catherine MacLellan laughs lightly at the end of her sentence, but it's clear she doesn't find the musician trope funny. The P.E.I. singer-songwriter is explaining one of the reasons why she wanted the East Coast Music Association (ECMA), of which she is a board member, to conduct its 2018 Mental Health Survey last summer.

The survey results have just been released, and the numbers are clear: there is a higher percentage of East Coast music industry members reporting mental illness and thoughts of suicide as compared to Canadians in general, and a high percentage reporting lower income and barriers to mental health support.

But as to MacLellan's point, the assumption is not that music industry members themselves are inherently prone to mental illness; with a list of recommendations to create a healthier workplace, the survey suggests that an environment of touring, late nights, readily available alcohol (and other substances) and financial instability requires a specific set of supports.

The first of its kind in Canada, the 2018 Mental Health Survey was conducted between May and August of last year and included a total of 50 responses from musicians, volunteers and other professionals in the East Coast music industry. Led by clinical therapist Errin Williams (founder of the all-women festival Harmony Bazaar in her hometown of Lockeport, N.S.), the survey included 16 questions that, considering the small sample size, Williams says she chose specifically to see which areas would need further research.

Based on what she's been hearing from musicians over the years and through her own work, Williams says some of the ECMA's survey results weren't a surprise:

  • More than half of respondents said they live below the poverty line.

  • Nearly 25 per cent make less than $10,000 per year.

  • Forty per cent say they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.

  • Sixty per cent felt that they had an undiagnosed mental health disorder.

  • Twenty per cent reported suicidal thoughts in the past month.

  • Twenty-six per cent reported suicide attempts over their lifetime.

  • Fifty per cent reported being concerned now, or in the past, about their alcohol/drug usage; 38 per cent reported that others had been concerned about their use.

Related:Read the full 2018 Mental Health Survey results and recommendations

Some of these percentages are notably higher than national averages: 33.1 per cent of Canadians met the criteria for mental or substance abuse disorders at some point in their lives, according to the 2012 Statistics Canada report of Mental Health Indicators. And according to Statistics Canada's 2012 Mental Health Indicators survey, an average of 3.3 per cent of Canadians reported suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months.

"We're not selling this [survey] as being a research project; this is a qualitative beginning, kind of scratching the surface," Williams explained, stressing that there needs to be more research, with a larger number of respondents, to get a fuller picture.

"[But] even if it's not with statistical rigour at this point — until we get some assistance with that — the artists know that this isn't something that people are ignoring," she added. "And it's not something we're just talking about to get people to notice us. We want to find very tangible things that can happen to support artists."

'There have been no studies within Canada'

Artists reporting a higher prevalence of mental illness and difficulty accessing mental health support is not new. Musicians have been speaking out for years on various platforms (including within their own work) about the need for support and the importance of destigmatizing mental illness within the industry.

"Every conversation that we have helps reduce the stigma, which is the greatest barrier to treatment," says MacLellan. "It's the thing that keeps people from seeking help because they're afraid of being seen as crazy."

In 2016 and 2017, Help Musicians U.K. released the two-part set of results from its mental health survey titled Can Music Make You Sick?, with significant results. More than 2,200 musicians participated, and part 1 of the study reported that 71 per cent of respondents said they had suffered from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety; 69 per cent suffered from depression.

What is different about the ECMA's 2018 Mental Health Survey is that it's local in nature. There is no concrete data on what Canadian artists experience, and the 2018 Mental Health Survey gives qualitative voice to the East Coast industry for the first time.

"People know [it's an issue], it's just finally, I think, we're getting it down in black and white with some numbers to support it," said Andy McLean, CEO of the ECMA.

"That's an ongoing challenge that we're recognizing ourselves," said Amanda Power, executive director of Unison Fund, a non-profit that provides phone counselling and financial assistance to members of the Canadian music industry. "There have been no studies within Canada."

Power said Unison has experienced a 50 per cent increase in the use of its counselling and financial assistance services in the first two months of 2019, as compared to all of 2018.

"The growth is a little overwhelming," Power said. "But that's why we were created … we want to help and if somebody's brave enough to say I need help, then we're going to help you."

While big labels like Sony, Warner and Universal monetarily support the privately funded Unison, indie label Royal Mountain Records recently launched its own support system. Menno Versteeg, founder of the Toronto-based label and lead singer in Hollerado, announced a mental health fund for his artists in February, and since then Versteeg says the response has been overwhelming.

"Since announcing this, people from all over the world have reached out and said that they want to help out one way or another," said Versteeg. "A lot of them have been very qualified, like psychotherapists, counselors, therapists from all over the world are like, 'I'd be glad to help out touring bands for half price or if they if they can't afford it I'll do free sessions via Skype,' or things like that. So we're compiling that list to give to our bands."

Related:'The music industry is to blame': Chromeo demands mental health resources for musicians

'I didn't write down 'pay musicians more''

With this bit of data out now, Williams says she knows where to focus future efforts. The need for further research, particularly surrounding suicidality, is one of seven recommendations she's made to accompany the survey results.

Monthly webinars on mental illness, addiction and wellness are also part of her recommendations, as is a working group of industry professionals, musicians, songwriters and music industry students to "figure out how best to continue the work."

"I tried not to make anything that was airy fairy, up in the sky," says Williams, of her recommendations. "I didn't write down 'pay musicians more.' You know? And, 'Never have alcohol at an event.'"

McLean says the association is looking into the recommendations, and he's been reaching out to provincial music organizations to bolster support and get things going. This is in addition to the Health & Wellness Centre that began at last year's annual ECMA conference, which offered guided meditation, appointments with a registered massage therapist and yoga classes. This year's Wellness Centre will also include Williams offering non-therapeutic consultation sessions.

"We're looking to share the space, we're not looking to dominate it at all," McLean said, of next steps for supporting artists. The ECMA is looking for funding to do further research, as well as what it would take to have a long-term health benefits plan for its members — one of Williams' recommendations.

'When you realize you're not the only one, you're not so afraid to speak out'

"I think a lot of people are struggling, and I think it is representative," says MacLellan, of the survey.

The singer-songwriter has most recently spoken about her own struggles with depression in the documentary The Song and the Sorrow by filmmaker Millefiore Clarkes, in which MacLellan examines her father Gene MacLellan's legacy and own mental illness, more than 20 years after his death by suicide. (The documentary will screen at East Coast Music Week in May, with donations going to the Unison Fund.)

"In my dad's era, when he was suffering from depression and anxiety and he didn't tell anybody, nobody knew that he was suffering because there was just so much stigma," she said. "And then even growing up for myself, you know, it was not something that a lot of people talked about, but there were whispers and things. I think people just started hearing more people talking, and that has led to more people talking."

"It's when you realize you're not the only one, you're not so afraid to speak out."

Need help? Here are some national mental health resources:Canada Suicide Prevention ServiceToll-free 1-833-456-4566Text: 45645Chat: crisisservicescanada.caIn French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

Counselling through Unison Fund (register for free as a member of the music industry here first): 1-855-986-4766

And some Atlantic Canada resources:The Island Helpline (P.E.I.): 1-800-218-2885Mental Health Crisis Line (Nova Scotia): 1-888-429-8167Mental Health Crisis Line (Newfoundland and Labrador): 1-888-737-4668Chimo Helpline (New Brunswick): 1-800-667-5005


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