Musicians' mental health big focus at East Coast Music Conference

This week's ECMA conference will address the proliferation of mental illness in the music industry and talk about ways to begin fixing the problem.

'There's always been this romanticized view of the tortured artist, which has been very unhelpful'

'There's lots of opportunities for people not to have the greatest mental health,' in the music industry, says Catherine MacLellan. (Aleksey Dushutin/Shutterstock)

Think musicians have a glamorous lifestyle? Being in the spotlight playing the music you love can be rewarding. 

But many musicians struggle with dark times — late nights, ready availability of alcohol and other substances, and lack of financial stability can take their toll on relationships and ultimately, mental health. 

"There's no stability, there are no schedules, people are underpaid and there's massive insecurity — so there's lots of opportunities for people not to have the greatest mental health," said Catherine MacLellan, 38. 

MacLellan has struggled with anxiety and depression most of her life. 

She's on the board of the East Coast Music Association and was part of a panel discussion about mental health at last year's ECMA conference. She and others opened up about their own experiences and sought solutions to better support one another. 

Survey says...

This year, the five-day conference is going all out on mental health.

"Addressing the proliferation of mental illness in our music industry is long overdue," notes Andy McLean, ECMA executive director.

'The more we open up the dialogue, the more the stigma of mental illness is reduced,' says MacLellan, who lives with depression and anxiety. (Jule Malet-Veale)

Initiatives include a health and wellness centre that will provide yoga classes and guided meditation, massage and acupuncture, and offer a quiet space in the midst of the hectic conference.

"There's always been this romanticized view of the tortured artist, which has been very unhelpful for the actual lives of musicians and artists," said Errin Williams, a clinical social worker who's helping spearhead the initiatives. 

A workshop in mental wellness support strategies will teach mental health first aid to volunteers and staff. 

A talk called Mental Illness: It's Time to Stop Being Weird About It by musician Zac Crouse planned for Friday will address the stigma. Crouse has suffered from post-traumatic stress.

Musicians are also being asked to complete a survey, so the association can collect information on the scope of mental illness in the East Coast music industry. Knowing the extent of the problem will give it some preliminary numbers to ask for more supports for people in the industry, organizers say.

'It's going to help a lot of people'

New supports could be things like workshops, funding or housing initiatives, said Williams.

Life on the road isn't all it's cracked up to be — and the East Coast music industry is looking to help artists. (Andrew Angelov/Shutterstock )

"We may find out it's not sitting down in a room with a therapist, perhaps it's making sure they can get some of their physical needs met," Williams said. Musicians may need help accessing dental and eye appointments or keeping their housing while on tour.

"I don't know why we haven't been talking about it that much before," said MacLellan. But a few minutes later she addresses her own question.

"People are still afraid to talk about suicide," she said. "As a survivor, a daughter of a man who took his life, it was a really hard thing to deal with in a meaningful way because nobody wanted to talk about it — so it made you feel you couldn't talk about it because it made everyone else uncomfortable." 

'The stigma is the greatest barrier'

Catherine's father, much-loved musician Gene MacLellan, died by suicide in 1995 when she was 14. She's now able to joke, gently, that her mental illness is a "family gift." 

Better mental health among musicians may start with 'making sure they can get some of their physical needs met,' says therapist Errin Williams. (Acuity Counselling and Therapy)

The conference's focus on mental health is both just a start and a "big win," said MacLellan, who has a couple of showcases at the event.

"I think it's fabulous," she said. "There aren't a ton of supports out there ... I think it's going to help a lot of people if they can make some changes and get some more resources for us. 

"The more we talk, the more we open up the dialogue, the more the stigma of mental illness is reduced," MacLellan said. "The stigma is the greatest barrier ... people are afraid to talk about it and they don't go and get the help they need." 

MacLellan shares that she is getting the help she needs through yoga, meditation and surrounding herself with a supportive network of friends and family. 

'We're allowed to be a little nuts'

And getting back to the "tortured artist" — will the art still be the same, if artists become mentally healthy? 

'People are still afraid to talk about suicide,' says MacLellan, whose father Gene MacLellan (right) took his own life 23 years ago. (YouTube)

"Some of the best songs I've written have been from a really stable place, and not one of deep grief or sorrow," MacLellan said. "I think there is a sensitivity among creative people to look a little deeper into things and that is how art is created. Sometimes I think that opens us up to being a bit more fragile and vulnerable.

"Musicians are just able to talk about it a bit more because we're allowed to be a little nuts," she said with a laugh. 

Musicians can access counselling and "discreet" relief for times of crisis through the Unison Benevolent Fund, a registered non-profit formed in 2010 that uses the tagline "The show must go on." The fund's hotline is 1-855-986-4766. 

The ECMA conference takes place Wednesday May 2 through Sunday May 6 in Halifax.

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email

With files from Mainstreet P.E.I.