In today’s essay, musician and Local Spins writer Enrique Olmos reveals his struggles with mental health and explores this important, oft-neglected subject with other musicians and experts in the field.
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A PREFACE FROM THE AUTHOR: I remember the evening vividly: It’d been a wonderful day. I was productive, positive, high on life.
I recall getting some good news about an interview with a musical hero of mine and sending out an enthusiastic email to this particular artist. Then I spoke with my brother on the phone for a few moments. I hung up the phone in good spirits as dusk fell over an icy January night.
Then the insidious thoughts sank in. For the first time in my 28 years, I contemplated taking my own life. It came out of nowhere, suddenly sinking its fangs into my psyche and clamping down on my soul.
That night, alone in my apartment, I fought back the darkest recesses of my mind. I clenched my teeth until my jaw hurt. I smoked some weed. I drank from a bottle of whiskey. Nothing eased the pain; it was my only companion that night.
So I sat with it. Even though an army of friends were only a call or text away, it seemed like there were oceans of despair separating me from any life raft.
In bed afraid and alone, I pushed those intrusive thoughts from my brain and fought against my own troubled mind for my life. I’m really not sure what kept me around. Sheer grit. Will power. A greater power. The universe.
All I know is that I finally understood why many of my musical heroes and peers have succumbed to suicide. It often doesn’t matter how strong your support system is. Or if things are going swimmingly in life. Or even if you’re naturally an enthusiastic, optimistic person, as I am.
I’m doing incredibly well now. I still have euphoric highs and cavernous lows. But I’ve sought help through hospitalization, therapy, medication and a fiercely loving support system of friends and family. There are still difficult days, but they are less frequent or isolating.
I work on myself intentionally every single day. I keep my spirits up through writing, making music, reading, listening to records, exercise and having coffee with friends. Anything to keep my mind busy and away from boredom, which, for me, leads to anxiety and then depression.
Things are different. Time is healing. I’m now filled with hope for the future. I feel as though I’m doing my best work, making art I’m proud of and feeling the best I’ve psychically felt in years.
Now, when those thoughts kick in, I immediately think of the next time I get to talk with my best friend Joel on the phone, or have coffee in the sunshine, or eat heaping portions of my dad’s Panamanian cooking, or play a show with my band. These prospects keep me waking up day after day.
I share all of this in complete vulnerability because while mental health is a loudening conversation, it still isn’t quite loud enough to my ears. Especially in the creative community, where this issue is so prevalent and so predatory.
I know I’m not alone, and want others to feel that way as well. I want the person who’s isolated after days on the road, or home alone in an empty apartment to feel the full weight and power of another person’s story. To feel hopeful. Thank you as always for reading my work, for the support and the endless love.
With hope and sincerity, Enrique Olmos
LIVING A STORIED MUSICIAN’S LIFE DOESN’T ‘NECESSARILY MEAN YOU’RE FREE OF PAIN’
“I think as artists it’s easy to become this kind of character for people where they believe a story that they tell themselves about us when they see us on stage. Everyone invents a story about who these people are on the stage, and our lives can seem really glamorous,” says Kate Pillsbury of Grand Rapids folk-rock band The Crane Wives.
“We travel to play music to people, it’s like a constant party. But as people who live that life, the details of your lifestyle don’t necessarily mean you’re free of pain.”
That aching conviction surfaces as Pillsbury sings “Turn out the Lights” from the album “Foxlore,” released in 2016:
“You don’t have to believe every single thought that tumbles through your head just ‘cause it sounds like you talking/Sometimes all you can do is say goodnight and tuck your demons into bed because they’re not worth fighting/Turn out the lights on your racing mind.”
Pillsbury goes on to mention grappling with depression and anxiety since high school. Indeed, she says much of The Crane Wives’ “vulnerable and raw” catalogue is about this very topic. Her anxiety, she says, is often directly related to finances. Songs like “Can’t Go Back,” “Queen of Nothing” and “Turn Out the Lights” gracefully navigate the murky waters of doubt, regret and despair.
Ypsilanti songwriter Chris DuPont also is no stranger to delving into mental health on his records.
His most recent album, “Floodplains,” includes lines such as: “When the voices are at their loudest, baby come, talk to me about it.”
“I believe that my job as a songwriter is to try to give language to things … language to feelings and sentiments and experiences that a listener might not voice until they’ve heard that piece of music,” says DuPont.
“I feel like I want to write these types of songs that make space for uncomfortable moments, and sort of annoy you. I had someone tell me once that my music lives in that moment when your head hits the pillow before you fall asleep, when you’re at your most vulnerable.”
DuPont himself suffers from “crippling OCD,” which, as an example, manifests itself in having extreme anxiety about his health and calling his doctor nonstop with worry.
“I’ve always felt that that’s my calling. And that means sort of exposing difficult moments, moments of isolation, moments of relational estrangement, moments of questioning your lineage, and moments of extreme frustration with your background and your faith system. I feel like those deeply unconsoled issues have to have a voice in my music,” DuPont says.
Musician Travis Atkinson of the Grand Rapids band Deep Greens & Blues also has written songs about the issue from a unique perspective: He’s a mental health systems consultant and counselor.
“This means I work with communities across the country to help them design ways of supporting people who are going through the worst day of their lives. Mental health is my vocation, and music is both my passion and my avocation,” he tells Local Spins.
“Sometimes I get to blend the two worlds. For example, I did a virtual songwriters’ corner for a suicide prevention coalition in the Philadelphia area, and some of the songs I performed were about mental health treatment, addiction, etc., and overcoming those struggles.”
MORE THAN HALF OF MUSICIANS FEEL DOWN, DEPRESSED OR HOPELESS
Throughout history, artists have been plagued with mental health issues. One study shows that about 73 percent of musicians report symptoms of mental illness. And among those with mental illness, 50 percent will battle addiction over the course of their lives. Perhaps it’s ingrained in the very nature of a person with a high creative output to have deeply buried pain.
It doesn’t help that the life of an artist is often misunderstood and marginalized. It typically takes years of toiling in obscurity before a stable career can be attained. And when incremental success is achieved, an artist may realize it’s not at all how they imagined it.
Add in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol, along with the rigorous schedule and lack of sleep that accompanies touring and the results can become disastrous. Recent losses in the music industry like Mac Miller and Justin Townes Earle due to fentanyl overdoses raise a frightening alarm.
In a 2018 study by the Music Industry Research Association and Princeton University — designed to examine the life circumstances and well-being of professional musicians and composers — more than half of the musicians surveyed reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless.
Of those surveyed, 11.8 percent reported “thoughts that they would be better off dead or hurting themself in some way” during at least several days in the last two weeks, compared with 3.4 percent for the general population.
Other alarming factors in terms of substance abuse appeared. Compared to the general U.S. adult population, the study concluded that musicians are five times more likely to have used cocaine in the last month, 6.5 times more likely to have used ecstasy, 13.5 times more likely to have used LSD, 2.8 times more likely to have used heroin or opium, and 3.5 times more likely to have used methamphetamines. Musicians are also twice as likely to drink alcohol frequently (four or more times per week) than the population as a whole: 31 percent versus 16 percent.
“I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that just hasn’t been given the proper awareness, or hasn’t been lifted up to the music community specifically, because, you know, when people think about the music community, it’s a pretty rock ‘n’ roll fun time,” says Elle Lively, executive director of the Michigan Music Alliance.
“We don’t look at some of the issues — unless it’s a tragedy, and we don’t want tragedies.”
Along with its work to promote and bolster the Michigan music community, the Michigan Music Alliance offers an extensive list of mental health resources on its website and plans to begin facilitating events and conversations around the topic.
“I feel like as an artist, there are a lot of ways where we’re comfortable sharing different parts of ourselves and being vulnerable. And we’re used to being exposed in some ways, but not in this way. Because you know, you have to keep it all together,” says Lively.
Because of the COVID pandemic shutdown of music in 2020, Lively says “the conversation is just now starting to happen within the industry … where you can lean on different people and start to talk about not only what has happened to you, but where you’re at at the moment…. It really did start a conversation that should have been started a long time ago.”
Another resource for touring artists and their mental health is The Clinic, aka The Roadie Clinic, based in Niles. The organization and advocacy group provides mental health support for Michigan-based music industry workers in a number of ways, including therapy, financial resources and pharmacy consults.
“Networking has been, and will continue to be, a great success. We now have connections within great pre-existing organizations like MusiCares, Music Health Alliance and Backline.care,” says Courtney Klimson, co-founder and CEO of The Roadie Clinic.
“We continue on the quest to get to know every resource available to roadies so that we have an arsenal at our fingertips when people come to us in need.”
When there isn’t an organization dedicated to a particular problem, “then we dive in and figure out what we can do to help. We’ve been able to help roughly 60 roadies to-date, and I’m happy to say we haven’t had to turn anybody away.”
The Roadie Clinic currently is in the process of securing funding for construction of a new facility, and plans to eventually hire full-time staff to handle its workload.
UNDERSTANDING AND ACKNOWLEDGING THE EFFECTS OF DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Marley Ferguson, who performs under the moniker Marsfade, a synth-washed indie moniker out of Grand Rapids signed to Luminelle Records, talks openly about her winding mental health journey both on her frenetic songs and on-record.
She survived two suicide attempts by the age of 17. Her depression first appeared as early as elementary school.
“I knew something was wrong or something was off, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the understanding of what it was because I was in elementary school,” says Ferguson.
“I’d never heard of mental health. I’d never heard of depression or anxiety. But I was feeling those things. And to me, it came out as me just being extremely emotional. I would get made fun of for being emotional. I felt like I was an outsider and didn’t understand why. I remember feeling really sad and insecure and confused about that.”
Among the things that were most helpful for Ferguson were behavioral therapy and a strong support system.
“The parts of my life where I have been the most stable have been when I find people who are able to really love and support me. I think when I exclude myself is when it gets tricky. When you exclude yourself and isolate yourself, that’s when you feel even darker and even worse and like there’s no one to go to,” Ferguson says.
“So I think trying to actively go against that and continue to make friends and keep people around me who are good supporters and who understand mental health has been a game-changer for me. That’s literally been the number one thing is just having good people around.”
So where does this leave the creative community? How can artists avoid burnout and tragic losses?
This is where it starts: with awareness and conversation.
Instead of designating our pain and hurt for the song and the stage alone, perhaps we talk more about these things on-record and in green rooms. Take time to check in with each other before rehearsals. Learn to support each other as humans, not simply creative entities. Make room for healing. Listen.
“I think the most important thing you can do is just see someone and make them feel seen and heard and acknowledged and believed,” suggests DuPont. “That can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. But I think when someone is grappling with this, I think they need to know that they’re seen; that help is available, and it’s worth getting.
“And as trite and possibly toxic as it sounds, I think people need to hear that it can get better. I do believe that. As tortured as we can all be, consciousness is a crazy, amazing gift. And I think even though it gets dark, when you pull through something like this, you can then be a resource to someone else who’s struggling with it. And I think that makes it so worth it.”
Here are links to some mental health resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Network 180 Crisis Services 24/7 Line: 616-336-3909
Copyright 2021, Spins on Music LLC