Peter Dickens says musicians are beginning to respond to the NZ Music Foundation's Wellbeing Service after a lifetime of leaving their problems in the dark. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

The music business can be a difficult world for artists and those who love them. As the New Zealand Music Foundation marks a milestone for its mental health and wellbeing service, its general manager tells Newsroom why vulnerability is both beneficial and dangerous for artists

Music changes lives. The right beat can make a heart dance beneath the muscles of the chest; the right lyrics can send someone on their way from misery to happiness, or all around the world and home again.

As an industry, however, music is famous for eating its young.

Peter Dickens’ phone buzzed with calls from local artists, and people who know artists, after hearing of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s sudden death while on tour in North America. As General Manager of the New Zealand Music Foundation charity and its new mental health support service, he was encouraged by the calls – they were evidence of a newfound willingness to ask for help.

The NZMF is a charity supporting people in the local music industry who experience illness, stress, or personal hardship. It also stands behinds projects using music to support people in a healthcare context, including music therapy for people recovering from serious illnesses or injuries.

Dickens, who worked for UK-based charities and participated in mental health initiatives for 15 years before returning to run the NZMF, says Cornell’s passing last week at age 52 “struck a nerve” with music industry people here.

“They were looking to reach out and get support. What happened to Chris is something, if you’re a music person, you should take note of.”

Life onstage is highly romanticised – typically by those in the crowds – but the reality, said Dickens, often means fierce competition, poor self-care, long periods of isolation, and constant vulnerability.

“Skinlessness,” as he describes it, is essential for the art form as well as being its greatest danger.

“You have to leave yourself open to stimuli of all forms, be vulnerable, and synthesise it into something that is true to what you have experienced. The problem is, people who are creative are uniquely vulnerable to mental health and wellbeing problems because they don’t have those layers of armour.

“There is no point in going to that dark place and not coming back alive. You can come back. That’s really important for people to understand and I hope we go some way to giving people the tools to create amazing music and be happy.”

It took the NZMF four years to sharpen the tools, and the biggest advance came with the release of the New Zealand Music Community Wellbeing Survey, which Dickens says was partly motivated by the death in 2014 of Auckland-based musician Sam Prebble.

“It was a big shock. We were approached about being able to help his family in the wake of his death. We could, but that sparked the conversation about the story that everybody knows about but nobody talks about, and that is mental health issues in the music industry.”

The survey’s results were published in November 2016 after input from more than 1350 music industry participants. The health data, benchmarked against the Ministry of Health’s NZ Health Survey results of 2014/15, found:

– Songwriters, composers, and performers reported suicide attempts in their lifetime at a rate more than double that of the general population

– More than a third reported having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder

– Songwriters and composers are more than twice as likely as the general population to have been diagnosed with depression

– More than 50 per cent of men and women were likely to have a drinking problem, far above nationwide averages

– 84 percent said stress had an impact on their day-to-day functioning

The survey indicated people in the industry were struggling by themselves either because they were too embarrassed to ask for help, unable to afford support, or couldn’t find therapists who understood the complexities of professional music.

The NZMF responded by developing its Wellbeing Service, now in its ninth month, offering a 24/7 helpline (0508 MUSICHELP) with additional online and in-person support.

“Our people are steeped in music,” Dickens says. “They are registered, professional counsellors who we’ve recruited specifically because they either have a background in music or in working with people in creative industries.”

The NZMF Wellbeing Service was announced by broadcaster John Campbell during the 2016 APRA Silver Scroll Awards. Tweeting that night was singer-songwriter Lydia Cole: “Incredibly happy to hear about the launch. I love this. What a moment!” Four months later, she tweeted again to thank them for their “very real help.”

Cole, a self-managing artist, had been organising an album release and tour on her own. “She came to the website and realised things were a bit worse than she thought they were, in herself,” says Dickens.

“She called the service and got the support she needed.”

Dickens is grateful to Cole for speaking publicly. The Wellbeing Service operates with strict confidentiality, so opportunities to give relatable reference points are rare. Grant Fell, a local fashion hero and former bassist for Headless Chickens, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015. His story is told on the Wellbeing Service’s website. 

After the survey, the service reported emotional and psychological stress being the main reason music people ask for its help. Other factors include grief, health, and career-related issues. Dickens says the music community must “look after its own” in times of crisis and sees the foundation’s work as essential to helping people have longer, more fulfilling careers in music.

“Sometimes that means people have to revise their outlooks. We’re talking a lot to Smokefree Rockquest. If you think about the journey those kids go on, by the time you reach a regional final you’re playing to 2,500 screaming fans at the town hall. But once you leave school, you’re calling on every connection you can possibly find just to fill the Whammy Bar. That’s a hell of a ride. So we’re working with Rockquest to support the kids who go through that.”

He says the basic career challenges aren’t unique to music, in terms of doing the work and making enough money to take care of housing, necessities, and the things that make life fun and interesting.

Though the survey revealed a lot of pain in its contributing artists, Dickens says one message came through loud and clear:

“Despite the problems, everyone is passionate about making their own music. It’s a phenomenal industry to be a part of. It’s incredibly satisfying, and there’s nothing like it.”

Where to get help:

– NZ Music Foundation Wellbeing service: 0508 MUSICHELP (24/7), online help

– Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or live chat (7pm-11pm)

– Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (24/7; Kidsline Buddies available 4pm-9pm)

– Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

– What’s Up: 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 942 8787 (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends) or live chat (5pm-10pm)

– Healthline: 0800 611 116 (24/7)

– Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

– Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or text free to 4202 (24/7)

– If you feel you or someone you know is at immediate risk, call 111.

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