Depressed Musicians

Last time, we considered the question, “What is Depression?It’s a simple question with an answer you’re probably sick of hearing: It’s serious, it’s common, it affects every aspect of one’s life, and many factors play a role in its development. (It’s dark stuff, Man.)

Photo by Trevor Richards.
Photo by Trevor Richards.

Today, let’s not just gloss over the symptoms of depression, but instead let’s sink into the possible ways these symptoms may manifest in musicians. In other words, how might these symptoms manifest in you, your bandmates, your music community? Sometimes seeing the signs early enough can save a life – or at least really improve the quality of one.

A lot of these symptoms (just like depression overall) have the ability to kill or fuel the creative process. They can kill our creativity, motivation, and even our physical ability to create. When this happens, the depression may deepen. On the other hand, the symptoms may fuel the creative process. As musicians, we love when our art can be fueled by it – at least then the pain and darkness seem to have a purpose. At least then it turns into something beautiful. Some think there’s something provocative about being a “tortured artist.” What do you think?

Symptoms of Depression in Musicians

These are some possible ways that the symptoms of depression may manifest in musicians. [I’ve compiled this information from surveys, interviews with musicians, personal, and professional experience.] This list is neither exclusive nor exhaustive (and some of these symptoms are indicative of other issues, too). Your experience may be different. If you’d like to share more about your experience with depression, take our quick and confidential Musicians and Depression Survey.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and need help or more information – reach out! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (they’re available 365/24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or go to their website to chat online) or, in Southwestern PA call resolve Crisis Services (they’re available by phone 365/24/7 at 1-888-796-8226).

Photo by Trevor Richards
Photo by Trevor Richards.

Feeling sad, anxious, or in an “empty” mood?

Among other things, you might use alcohol or other drugs to manage your emotions and bodily sensations. (If you need it, learn more here and get help here.)

For musicians – and everyone feelings of sadness and emptiness may lead to the use of stimulants (like nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, and other amphetamines) to make you feel more active, alert, and alive. Conversely, feelings of anxiety may lead to the use of depressants (like alcohol, opioids such as morphine, heroin, and oxycodone, and sedative-hypnotics such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines) to relax and calm you. All of these substances – and many other prescription drugs – are easy to abuse and become addicted to because they trigger the pleasure/reward center in your brain. Musicians – and other creatives – may also seek out other mind-altering drugs (like marijuana, LSD, PCP, and psilocybin mushrooms) because they generally distort one’s perceptions and deepen the senses. Some musicians may feel they require this for inspiration when they’re feeling “empty.”

All of these substances have the ability to kill ya (some more quickly and easily than others, of course) based on the amount used, how they’re used, and in what combination. Be careful – consider alternative coping techniques and seek treatment if needed.

Oh yeah, drugs and alcohol are really easy to get. Especially when your work environment is a bar and many people there are drinking or using drugs. This can make it exceptionally hard for musicians who are in active recovery.

Here’s a really interesting service that Bengt Alexsander‘s friend created: Passenger provides free, easy transport to and from recovery meetings for those playing shows in Detroit, MI. They also offer a sober “backstage” area where travelers can find relief from the hardships of touring and socialize with sober artists. Check them out!

Feeling hopeless or pessimistic? 

Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism often manifest in musicians as a lack of self-confidence and a lack of motivation. I often hear talented musicians say that they suck, shouldn’t play, or have no skill. Sure, sometimes it could be a “fishing for compliments” situation, but I think a lot of times it’s genuine. When you’re feeling hopeless and pessimistic, it doesn’t matter how good you really are. And it’s easy to find things to be hopeless and pessimistic about in the music business: No one cares about my music, no one wants to listen to me, I don’t have anything to offer. The lack of motivation to practice, write, play, and perform often stems from this symptom of depression.

Feeling irritable?

Feelings of irritability often lead to interpersonal conflicts: Disagreements with band members, frequent “creative differences,” fights at bars/clubs, and arguments with club owners/sound techs/audience members. If this symptom goes unchecked, you might find yourself being kicked out of your band, asked to leave a bar, not asked back to perform, or losing support from fans. This one is not fun for you (as the irritable person), but it’s a lot less fun for your friends, family, and bandmates.

Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless?

Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness can destroy your self-confidence, motivation, and initiative. [This one is the worst, in my opinion.] When this symptom is strongest, you can’t handle criticism. On a better day, you might say, “thanks for the input – yeah I see what you’re saying about that part…I’ll work on it!” But, on a worse day, you might equate criticism with annihilation. You might quit your band, quit writing, quit playing – you might just give up on music all together. Hopefully you won’t do this because (according to our Musicians and Depression Survey) when we’re not playing music, our depression gets worse!

Lost interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities…like music?

When you used to get pleasure from an activity and now you don’t, it’s confusing. This lack of interest and pleasure may make you not want to practice, write, play, or perform – just because it’s not fun anymore. It might come on quickly and confuse you and your bandmates, family, and friends. Sometimes, you might force yourself to play and perform despite feeling insincere. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t (and when it doesn’t you feel even worse). Feeling confused by this change in interest can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. The cycle continues.

Feeling fatigued and like you just don’t have any energy? 

Fatigue is not being “tired” or “sleepy.” It’s not about sleeping poorly last night. Fatigue is an extreme: extreme tiredness, typically due to extreme mental or physical exertion, or illness. This makes sense: When you’re depressed, sometimes just everyday living requires extreme mental and physical exertion. When you’re fatigued and your energy is essentially non-existent, music may (have to) take a backseat. Mental fatigue often leads to a lack of interest and motivation in writing, practicing, playing, and performing. Physical fatigue often leads to the physical inability to write, practice, play, and perform. Lugging around and setting up equipment, standing on stage, and putting effort into performance all require energy. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Sometimes this lack of energy entices musicians to use stimulants because without them they can’t stay awake.

Moving… or talking… more… slowly than usual?

Depression has the ability to slow everything – like cognitive and physical abilities – down. This symptom can be somewhat surprising – and even disturbing. Often people who are depressed get labeled as lazy. This has a lot to do with the other symptoms we’ve already talked about, but it also has to do with the depression of (read as: slowing down of) all bodily systems. It’s not about being lazy – it’s about a depressed mind and body. Musicians experiencing this symptom might find that they can’t play or sing as well as normal. Your fingers might not move as quickly and your words might be unclear. Even if you’re able to play and sing normally, if something goes awry and you have to think on your feet, you might not have the capacity to do so.

Photo by Trevor Richards.
Photo by Trevor Richards.

Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still?

Depression isn’t all about slowness. Sometimes you might feel restless or have trouble sitting still due to one of the other symptoms of depression: anxiety. [This symptom deals with what I like to call feeling Fidgety As Fuck, or FAF. It’s not a clinical term, in case you were wondering.]

If you’re feeling FAF you might: tap your fingers and feet incessantly (this one might be common among all musicians, though), scratch/pick/rub/pull on your skin/hair/clothes, doodle (or noodle if you have a guitar in your hands), pace, or talk nonstop. Sometimes this behavior is calming and decreases anxiety. Other times, it just wears you out – back to the point where you’re feeling fatigued and slowed down. (It can also be annoying to the people around you, unfortunately.) For musicians, in particular, this FAF-ness can lead to overplaying on songs, messing up parts due to shaky fingers or voice, or not being able to get through practice. Sometimes these feelings of restlessness and anxiety coax musicians to use depressants to help them feel more control over their restless behaviors. On a positive note, some musicians find that times of restlessness are great times to write and create because the brain (and body) are working overtime.

Having difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?

Having difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions affects everything you do. In fact, it might make you want to stop doing a lot of things because it feels so hard to do them. Musicians struggling with this symptom have trouble focusing on writing, playing, practicing, recording, and performing. They might mess up words, notes, or parts – not because they don’t know their stuff but because their mental processes just aren’t working as efficiently as they need to be. Setting up shows, creating merch, and production – or even something as simple as deciding on a set list – may be particularly hard.

Having trouble sleeping and waking up early? Or are you sleeping way more than usual?

Sleep changes – sleeping more or less than normal, for example – can wreak havoc on a person’s day (and night). If you’re already struggling with fatigue, restlessness, or substance abuse, this one is going to be extra hard.

But, hey, if you have trouble falling asleep and you are out most nights of the week performing until 2 AM, it kind of works out (right?). Not really. Many musicians also have to wake up early to take care of other responsibilities (be it work, school, or family) because most musicians (at least most musicians that I surveyed) don’t make enough money playing shows to not have to earn money some other way. Getting inadequate sleep quickly gets the better of most people, causing: irritability, fatigue, slowness, restlessness, difficulty making decisions (are you noticing the trend)? Musicians struggling with this symptom might have a hard time getting places on time – like practice, shows, recording sessions, and photo shoots.

Changes in your appetite or weight?

Changes in your energy level may lead to changes in your appetite which may then lead to changes in your weight (and vice versa, vice versa). One thing about this symptom that may be particularly hard for musicians is that of body image. Losing weight or gaining weight – depending on what you want your body to look like – may make you feel badly about your looks. When you’re a performer, you’re quite visible – you might be onstage, in photos, and in videos. For some, decreased confidence in their looks may induce them to stop performing. And that is unfortunate, because for so many musicians, performing is a critical way that they get positive feedback and validation for their art.

Having aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems for what seems like no reason? 

Aches and pains that seem to occur for no reason and that you can’t get under control despite treatment can be a symptom of depression. For many, this symptom often leads to substance use in order to stop the pain (particularly the misuse of prescription painkillers). It can also lead to body image issues – when your body doesn’t feel good you’re less likely to exercise and eat properly, and if your body doesn’t feel right, it’s challenging to perform in front of people. Oftentimes, feeling sick can lead to missed practices or shows. Or, you might feel too unwell to write or practice songs.

Do you have thoughts of death or suicide? Have you tried to kill yourself?

So many songs deal directly with thoughts of death or suicide. So many artists tackle this issue head on in order to heal, support, catalyze, provoke, or shock. Whatever the reason, I think that it is good. Thoughts of death and suicide are real – as humans, we are excruciatingly aware of our mortality and so we need ways to deal with that knowledge. The most desperate feeling that anyone can have – I think – is wanting to die at your own hands. I do not judge those who have taken their own lives or who struggle with that intense desperation. Anyone who wants to commit suicide just wants the pain to stop.

Learn how to help yourself and others here. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has helpful, supportive resources for those who are having thoughts of suicide, have attempted suicide, or who have lost someone to suicide. They also have easy-to-understand guides for supporting anyone you think might be at risk for suicide. Please check out these resources.

Suicide has never been a stranger to the music world. Losses of extremely creative and talented people at their own hands have staggered us all. People who are dealing with these intense feelings will often let you know – in some way or another – that they want to die. The most obvious way musicians may do this is by isolating themselves from their bandmates, their friends and family, and their fans. They may start to “wrap up” the business of their music (perhaps getting rid of their beloved instruments or albums). They may talk about ending their music career (saying things like “this is my last show”, “this is the last song I’ll ever write”). They may talk about the means by which they plan to die (casually mentioning that they borrowed a gun from their brother, or filled all their prescriptions so they have a lot of pills at home). These are not sentiments to be taken lightly – learn how to help yourself and others here.

What do you think about this list? Can you relate to any of these symptoms and how they sometimes manifest? Let us know what you think. And even more importantly, know that you’re not alone.

Photo by Trevor Richards.
Photo by Trevor Richards.

Today we delved into the possible ways symptoms of depression may manifest in musicians. This deep-dive may help you to more clearly see (and understand) signs of depression in yourself or your bandmates in order to get the support that is necessary and deserved.

Next time, we’ll talk about specific ways that musicians can cope with these symptoms. If you haven’t already, let us know how you cope so that we can spread the word to other musicians. Take our quick and confidential Coping Techniques SurveyBe well.