Musicians Are 50% More Likely to Be on Medication. But Why?

Musicians Are 50% More Likely to Be on Medication, Based on New Study
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Musicians Are 50% More Likely to Be on Medication, Based on New Study
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Image by Mary Lock (CC by 2.0)

You’re not alone.

You find it difficult to concentrate in your everyday life. Throughout the day, you face bouts of sudden loneliness. You feel fatigue. You also feel like you’re living your life in a black hole. And despite 350 million people facing the very same thing you are, you feel that no one can truly understand you.

You’ve heard it before: you’re not alone. But now, a new study from Norway reveals something very, very startling: musicians in the country are three times more likely to face deteriorating mental health and undergo psychotherapy than standard Norwegian citizens.  They’re also 50% more likely to use psychotropic meditation like antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anxiolytics.

Psychiatrist Jonas Vaag from North Trøndelag Hospital Trust spearheaded the research. The findings are consistent with 2012 research, which indicated

high rates of sleep difficulties and psychological distress among musicians.”

Involved in that project was the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Nord University, and Nord-Trøndelag University College. The project abstract reads:

Research indicates that there is a higher degree of mental health problems, family/work conflicts and sleep-related problems among workers in creative occupations than in other professions.

Research also reveals that musicians have to deal with a relatively high degree of occupational stress.”

The reason for the study was because of a lack of studies that examine medical problems musicians face. However, previous research Vaag and his team found indicates the following:

Scandinavian…studies indicates that psychological strain and mental health problems are reported more frequently among artists than in most other profession.

In a study done in 2008, researchers found that common mental health problems such as anxiety, restlessness, depression, and sleep problems were more prevalent and widely reported among musicians than in any other occupational group. Artists also faced conflicts balancing their work and family life.

These problems aren’t only associated with artists. Vaag’s research team found the following:

The research literature on arts, creativity and psychological health shows that creativity, which is a prerequisite for many forms of artistic and musical performances, may be associated with increased risk of affective disordersand substance abuse.”

There’s another hidden danger that other researchers have found. A population-based study showed that people involved in the creative spectrum, like research, arts, and music, were more likely to suffer bipolar disorder.

Vaag’s research was based on in-depth interviews with twelve unnamed award-winning musicians. There were five females and seven males involved in Pop, Jazz, Classical, Rock, Folk, and Metal. These artists have released albums, and primarily made their living through music as freelancers. The interviews lasted two hours and were carried out over a period of six months from October 2011 to March 2012.

The first section of the interview consisted on the musician’s background and experience. The interview then shifted to work demands and specific challenges or stressors each artist faced. The primary focus was to find out about their daily lives. Section 2 of the interview consisted on job resources, personal resources, and preventative factors. Vaag and his research team wanted to find out what factors were important for musicians to master challenges. Section 3 was focused directly on musicians’ health and their use of healthcare throughout their career.

Here’s what researchers found: artists had a difficult time distinguish their work from their normal, everyday lives.

Life as a freelance musician was described to be welded with one’s identity and lifestyle.”

Musicians often told the research team that it made little sense to describe work and leisure as two different entities. In regards to their health, one musician said the following:

We are never sick. I believe it has never happened. Of course, it depends on how you define being sick. If some of us had turned up at the hospital, we would probably been given sick leave. Despite fever and back-aches, you play . . . and you postpone being sick to when you come back from tour.

It is like the body is postponing being sick. It is the fact that you are indispensable. I believe that’s the reason. Everything demands on you, and that’s a really good feeling, it is not bad at all. One feels valued.

There are three specific demands that all musicians faced, along with specific quotes:

1. Unpredictable future and lack of given structure

Since these artists worked primarily as freelancers, there was no foreseeable stability. Interviewed musicians faced insecurity and continuous instability. These factors mainly dominated their lives.

a. Unstable economy

All musicians faced economic instability during the first few years of their career. One musician said,

I know that this is what I want to do. Especially after all the challenges I have faced. But money is the main problem for everyone choosing to be a musician.”

In order to succeed in their professions, many artists had to ask for loans from family members and friends. They also had to work spare jobs or different assignments to succeed economically.

b. Lack of foresight

In the face of unpredictable job security, musicians have to seek stability. This was in addition to factors like quality and accuracy of performance. One musician said,

One thing that is unique is that everything is based on short time frames and last minute work. One does work intensively in certain periods and very little in others. So it is very unstable. It may be compared with being at war, being a soldier. At one moment you are home relaxing, and then it’s out again, 24/7 . . . It looks like a war. You do not know if you will come back alive . . . or . . . that’s a bit exaggerated . . . but you do not know what is facing you.”

Another said,

It is the collision between your ambitions, dreams and reality. You are not able to realize it due to financial issues. I believe that there are many who succumb because of that

2. Family/work conflicts

The combination of continuous work demands and an unstable economy adds stress. Throw family into the mix, and you have many who have considered quitting altogether. One artist said,

The ones at home had to adjust themselves to my line of work. My kids have become accustomed to growing up with a father on the road. As a father, in this line of work, we are never involved in school events and weekend events. When there are family events like birthdays and funerals, we are usually gone as well.”

Another said,

 “There is something about the way of life that you have chosen, which often results in getting that feeling that you are inadequate. You may succeed artistically . . . you reach your goals . . . you manage your guitar-solo . . . but your way of life may also result in that you may hurt others, or feel that you are not able to fulfill the demands of your loved ones.


3. External pressure

There are also external pressure artists uniquely face. Many were quoted as saying that external feedback weighed down on them heavily. This also included expectations from audience, media, and other interests. Some even had to accept work instead of doing what they really wanted to do.

a. Identity pressure

Besides facing external pressure, most musicians faced the challenge of maintaining their integrity, musical identity, and core values. Their finished musical and professional product became their very identity.

There are few jobs where people applaud you when you’ve done your job. That’s the obvious, positive part. The next day . . . you open the newspaper . . . and they say that you have performed miserably. You can actually experience that . . . Everybody gave you applause and standing ovations and thought it was fantastic at the concert . . . but the next day the newspaper says it’s all rubbish. That’s strange . . . and I believe you’ll not face that in any other profession. You can actually do your job properly, or even absolutely fantastic, but even then experience that people condemn you afterwards.”

These are the pressure that musicians faced, which may actually lead to depression. However, Vaag and his team also found resources that artists used to deal with the pressure. These resources, Vaag noted, foster growth, motivation, learning, and development. Thus, these resources serve as a buffer for the stress musicians face as well as a source of well-being.

1. Support

a. Family Support

Family support is as an important source for emotional and practical support. Having a family that supports their career choice is absolutely vital in their pursuit of career goals. An important source of motivation for many musicians is their family. This, in turn, leads to a successful pursuit of a career as a freelance musician.

I’ve had a very stable family, also in the ups and downs of my career. I have, for the first time of my life, been able to lend them money, instead of always being the one who has to ask them for it. And that is probably the most important explanation for my own good mental health status.

b. Support from band and/or professional network.

Band members each use the information, knowledge, and skills that other band members display. Thus, they take on different roles to grow their enterprise. Take a look at what one musician said:

To push the band forward we had to do an internal scanning, looking for what each one of us could contribute to the band, besides being a musician. We had one that was a good strategist and who was creative in finding solutions, not only in music, but also within business and marketing. (We had) the songwriter, who provided the raw material and another one that was good at talking with the media. Another…was good at promoting the band and one that was good at administration and economy.”

Individual musicians, however, have to face challenges on their own or with assistance from people in their network. This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with working in a band. Problems noted in the study include maintaining a well-balanced combination of personalities as well as productive group decision-making.

I found out that I have had enough. I had done what I could, and I was neither able nor willing to do this anymore. I woke up every morning ruminating about the challenges that would face me during the day. We were the best when we were on stage. Off stage, it was chaos. We had disputes that turned into conflicts, different personalities and different types of people collided. Different types of friends. And when we lived together, on tour, with such differences . . . I felt it was extreme. If you manage to work in this band, you’ll manage anything.”

Another said,

You have to have this managing-talent; otherwise, you need to have people around you who complement you. If you are in a band, this can be taken care of by other band members. If you are alone, you have to have a network around you that helps you manage the talent you have . . . but musical talent alone is not enough.

c. Support, feedback, and communication with fans and audience

Communication from and with fans served one of the most important sources for motivation and engagement.

That is what I live for, that is the magical thing. Of course some concerts stand out more than the others . . . the joy of standing there and that something happens . . . It is the communication . . . the interplay . . . between me and the audience. I get excited. It’s probably the adrenaline. I’m a total addict…


2. Personal resources

a. Dedication to music

Musicians’ passion for music as well as family support helped them during the difficult early years. A vital source of health was their passion for making music. On the other hand, a lack of music making and performance lead to worse health. This includes a lack of enjoyment and restlessness.

And then you have the playfulness. It is totally important . . . in addition to the seriousness. It’s actually like having fun playing a game, a very complicated one. It is 10,000 finger movements during two and a half hour that you have to hit with millimeter precision. The goal is making music… It is like playing a game. In addition, it is a fairy tale . . . . You have to remember this all the time . . . that the reason for starting this was the playfulness. It started with just playing for fun . . . then it became work . . . and the media . . . and all that crap . . . but the playfulness must always be there.”

b. Entrepreneurial skills

Life as a freelance musician isn’t easy. Vaag’s team found that it’s a continuous process of balancing musical and performance skills with professional, managerial, or entrepreneurial skills. Musicianship is dependent on organization, developing, selling, and networking.

“People that I saw had the talent, but not the proper focus. Maybe it was because they did not want it enough. They seemed to have the natural talent, but did not have the skills to communicate it and manage it. XX has got the talent, and is good at managing it, and is skilled to maintain focus on that. You have to have this managing talent, otherwise, you need to have people around you who complement you.

If you are in a band, this can be taken care of by other band members. If you are alone, you have to have a network around you that helps you manage the talent you have . . . but musical talent alone is not enough. If you have great musical talent, you probably have bad practical talent. There is obviously some dichotomy there, but somebody has got the combination of talents. YY is not so good at it. He is creative as hell and should have got at least as great a career going as XX. His work is absolutely stunning, but since he is not good at managing his talent, and keeping focus on that bit, he falls short.

I simply think that it lies there. You have to have the combination of musical talent and the skills to manage it in a professional manner. Present it in a natural way. You have to be smart in gaining a professional network and to be at the right place to the right time.”

Another quoted an unnamed band that just couldn’t make it.

He had his own band, and it did not work. Even though they had come a longer way than us and had a major hit on the radio. They were about to gain major success. But then all the other demands came, and they were not organized enough to meet and solve them.

An unnamed female musician found that she had to continuously develop her product. She also had to keep an eye on how to face instability.

There is so much you have to be good at as a freelancer. Handling the media, sell yourself as a musician, etc. Sometimes it can be very demanding. I may ruminate about it, and fear the continuous challenge of having to sell myself . . . and sometimes it feels nice to have a day off… Other times it is not good at all . . . Now that I am getting older and experience that fewer and fewer know me and my musical background, I realize that I have to tell them my whole story. Tell them about something I did in the 80s, before many of them were born . . . seems like the Jerusalem times. It is becoming more and more difficult.

To begin with, it is the challenge of becoming established, to get a foot inside the door. Once you get established, you cannot relax . . . you never get to the place where you can relax. It is not like being in an orchestra or any other form of permanent employment. Every day you have to prove that you have something to provide, or else, you have to renew yourself . . . You have to constantly show that you are still going strong.

c. Flexibility and proactivity

Freelance musicians who have solid managerial skills were able to withstand continuous instability. However, to ensure success, they had to hone their flexibility and ability to adapt to difficult situations.

And there lies the whole solution. After the year of 19XX, when I started on my own, and since I was working freelance, I was watchful and did not tie myself to one specific client without having eyes and ears open for new assignments. Many have failed this important exercise, and it is dangerous to get too comfortable, thinking that the payment will last for years. You are so confident, you are so certain that you will be asked the next year as well. But then they cut you off, and you sit there without a job. So I did decide to be watchful.”

d. Internal locus of control and resilience

As opposed to having an employer, freelance musicians have more autonomy, and thus, more responsibility. Musicians described the need to control their careers and their own products.

I feel like I have not been able to expect that someone else would be able to put together a job description that is fitting for me to work within. I entered this line of work when I was a teenager, but have never been accustomed to having a manager. Ultimately it is you that has to earn enough money to support yourself, and if not, you have to find another source of income. I have not asked others to solve this.

Freelance musicians must also own up to their own successes and their own failures.

Every musician knows what I am talking about when I say this . . . you come to a point where you must understand that if you get bad feedback, it is you and only you that gets it…If you get good feedback, it is also only you that gets it. You have to make sure that you have deserved that negative or positive feedback, instead of standing there and blaming some other idiot.”


e. Fostering and maintaining core values

Most musicians in the research started their professions as mere hobbies. However, once they went professional, what was once an enjoyable hobby soon became something different. These musicians had to suddenly face external demands and the challenge of overcoming them. However, though each interviewed musician faced this in one way, they all found one thing important: they had to find their way back to where it all started.

You have to get to the position where you find the source of why you started with this. ‘Yes, because I love singing and music. That’s why I’m doing it. Now there is someone who is tampering with it. This does not feel right for me’ . . . in that situation you have to take that fight. You have to say: ‘This does not feel right for me, so it has to be done in another way’.

And then you have to stand there on the judgment day and live with it. I’ve been in the position where I got lost, and that was the worst thing that I have ever experienced. Because then I had a nasty feeling that I was not in proper contact with myself and my reasons for why I started with my musical career.”

3 Responses

  1. Mark

    Musicians Are 50% More Likely to Be on Medication. But Why?

    Because corporations take all the profits from them that they worked so hard to achieve and gain, and they are left with nothing. It’s criminal and terrifying for a musician figuring out how to survive. Worrying about money and the future constantly is draining.

    • Donna

      12 is not a statistically significant sample.

  2. Paul

    12 is definitely too small a sample, but the points are generic. Also the sample should be taken from Labels data base. Students at Universities studying Music, Indie Bands and Solo Artists.