No cliché: why musicians are more prone to mental health problems

No cliché: why musicians are more prone to mental health problems

On stage they act like ramp hogs, but when the lights go out they collapse into a heap of misery. Many musicians struggle with mental health issues. Why is that? The answer could be found in the genes.

Don’t want another dark time think to myself / I won’t get lost inside it all, I’m on my way / well I can see it the darkness covering my mind / well we can hear the voices war inside.”

Adam Granduciel, frontman of indie rock band The War on Drugs, wasn’t exactly beaming when he wrote these lines. It was 2014, Granduciel was in a depressive phase. It wasn’t his first. He had lived with depression all his life, but only when he was working on the album “The Lost Dream” did he understand what was tormenting him, he said at the time of the release.

Kurt Cobain, Demi Lovato, Chris Cornell, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Chester Bennington, Kanye West, Selena Gomez, Ian Curtis. The list of famous musicians who suffer or have suffered from mental health problems is endless. But can it really be that musicians have to grapple with the impassability of the world more than the Otto Normals? This question has occupied scientists for years. Researchers now actually want to have discovered an answer in the genes.

Mental problems in musicians anchored in genes

As early as 2019, a research team in a twin study with 10,500 Swedes found evidence that musically active people suffered from depression, burnout and psychoses more often than those who did not play music. Even then, they did not believe in a causal connection between making music and psychological problems. “People don’t make music as a reaction to their mental health problems or vice versa,” said Laura Wesseldijk, first author of the study. The results are more likely to be explained by genetic factors and influences from the family environment.

In a subsequent study, which has now been published in the renowned journal “Nature”, the thesis has now been confirmed. To do this, the researchers also used molecular genetic methods and examined the genes of 5,648 Swedish twins. They found that people who were at higher genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder—whether or not they also had psychiatric symptoms—were not only more likely to be musically active, but also practiced more and performed better artistically. “Furthermore, a genetic propensity for general musicality appears to increase the likelihood of receiving a diagnosis of depression. This effect occurred regardless of whether and how much people played music, suggesting that music-making cannot explain this effect,” write the researchers.

The results indicated the presence of common underlying genetic influences on musical engagement and mental health that explain at least part of the phenotypic associations, they summarize. Overall, the study shows “that people who deal with music have a higher genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder and that people with a tendency towards general musicality are more likely to suffer from depression,” according to the research team. In classification, however, they noted “that we cannot rule out that mental health problems that are independent of genetic risk have a causal influence on musical commitment or vice versa”. Further research on the subject is necessary.

Music business as a driver for mental illness

The search for why musicians are more likely to suffer from mental illness is complex. As is so often the case, there is no one answer. On the one hand, it is scientifically proven that making music can have a positive therapeutic effect. On the other hand, making music – even if you ignore the genes – can make you ill. This is the conclusion of Britons Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave after surveying more than 2,000 British music professionals on the subject in 2016 and 2018, with 68.5 percent of respondents reporting depression and more than 70 percent reporting severe anxiety.

They asked the question why differently. They didn’t focus on the genes, which is a natural predisposition, but instead focused on the music business. As they found, the work environment can also be detrimental to mental health.

Gross and Musgrave’s findings are largely consistent with a Swedish survey conducted by Record Union among independent musicians. Almost three quarters (73 percent) of those questioned stated that they were struggling with psychological problems. The music business was most difficult for 18 to 25 year olds. Of these, eight out of ten said the job had a negative impact on their mental health. Among other things, they spoke of fear of failure and financial instability, which weighed on them.

Self-therapy with alcohol and drugs

However, musicians with mental health issues rarely sought help. Just 39 percent said they had sought treatment. The vast majority (51 percent) “treated” themselves according to their own statements – with alcohol and drugs. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Sid Vicious, Keith Richards, Anthony Kiedis, Elton John, Pete Doherty. The list of musicians whose drug use is known is long. In fact, according to a study of US musicians by the Music Industry Research Association (MIRA), musicians consume twice as much alcohol as the average world population, three times more heroin and opium and almost seven times more ecstasy.

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Source: Stern

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