Olly Alexander on mental health and the music industry
The Years and Years lead singer speaks about his own experiences of mental health and the challenges the industry poses to those facing similar struggles
This week (May 16-22) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with “relationships” as the theme. We’ll be running features all week about the mental health of those close to you, the mental health of the artists that inspire you and the different ways that communities and individuals deal with the issue. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in the ways in which we discuss a problem that affects each and every one of us.
“I guess my experience of mental health is pretty, um, complex,” laughs the lead singer of British electronica trio Years and Years Olly Alexander. 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, according to UK charity Mind. It only takes a cursory glance at the news to see that those working in the music industry aren’t exempt from this statistic. From R&B singer Kehlani’s recent attempted suicide, to dubstep DJ Benga’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and subsequent interview with The Guardian and last year’s harrowing documentary Amy following the rise and tragic demise of Amy Winehouse, it’s clear that Alexander isn’t alone in his ‘complex’ experience of mental health.
These highly publicised stories have opened up a new conversation about mental health in the industry and caused new questions to be raised. Is the nomadic lifestyle of touring, coupled with the euphoric highs and emotional lows of performing and the culture of drugs and alcohol, conducive to mental illness? In the past, Alexander has spoken openly and candidly about his own battles with his mental health. His experiences have given him a wisdom beyond his 25 years and so, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, we speak to him about the intersection of mental health and the music industry. He discusses the trials of touring, the trappings of fame and shares his advice for young artists.
Could you tell us a bit about your own experience of mental health?
Olly Alexander: I’ve been taking medication for depression and anxiety ever since I was a teenager and I’ve had treatment for both. When I was in school I suffered from eating disorders, bulimia, self-harm, which are all part of the mental health umbrella. It’s not only something that affects me but also affects my family and some of the people closest to me too, which I’m sure many people can relate to.
I’ve spent the last few years really working on my mental health, trying to get better support. I’ve received care from the NHS and privately, from both sectors, and I feel like I’m a bit clued up on what’s out there in terms of the services and medications available. So that’s a little snapshot into my own experience of mental health. Also, being gay, that’s part of it too.
How does that play into it?
Olly Alexander: Well, I guess anyone who isn’t straight can tell you, when you don’t fit into the social norm, it can be a really difficult and traumatic experience. And that can have an impact on your mental health. You know, we live in a straight world and we don’t often have the support or the networks at our fingertips to help, especially young queer kids. I think that still has a massive impact.
Has music had a positive impact on your mental health?
Olly Alexander: Yeah, definitely. I am very lucky that I have that tool, that I write music and perform. It’s helped me in so many different ways and, I’m also just a creative person, so it’s how I live. It helps because it’s who I am. But I’d also love to emphasise that therapy is the best form of therapy. We say things like, “Music is therapy,” but I don’t think that’s true. I think music can be therapeutic and a really positive thing, but that seeing a therapist is the best form of therapy you can get.
What are the challenges of being a musician who struggles with their mental health?
Olly Alexander: This is a very important subject for the industry. For a start, touring itself is not conducive to good mental health. There’s just no two ways about it. You’re always travelling, you have no real routine, you spend most of your days quite sedentary and then you have really short bursts of adrenaline in the evenings. So your body chemicals and hormones are always up and down. And then you’re in an environment where lots of people are drinking and doing drugs. And then it’s the same thing the next night and you’re in new place with new people.
It’s hard to get your basic needs met, things like contact with people who can support you and love you, stability and routine. These things can be difficult to implement on tour. Also, it’s the fact that you’re in an industry which, like any creative industry, is fraught with failure, rejection and unfairness. If you’re a creative person, you’re probably predisposed to darker thoughts and that feeds into this whole cycle. But it’s also a great area for people who struggle with their mental health because they can really positively express themselves and that’s why everyone writes music when they’re in pain or falling in love because, yeah, that’s how they challenge it.
Do you think struggling with your mental health is quite a common thing within the music industry?
Olly Alexander: I think that the way we talk about mental health is quite tricky, because everyone deals with mental health. The terminology we use is that it’s an epidemic but I don’t think that reflects the reality of what it actually is. It is prevalent in creative industries but surely it’s the same in other industries too – maybe there just isn’t a culture of discussing it. Maybe people who work at GlaxoSmithKline don’t talk about their issues as much as people in the music industry. At the same time, I would say that it’s an industry area where people have mental health distress.
“We say things like, ‘Music is therapy,’ but I don’t think that’s true. I think music can be therapeutic and a really positive thing, but that seeing a therapist is the best form of therapy you can get” – Olly Alexander
Do you think there’s much education or awareness in the music industry about mental health?
Olly Alexander: I worry there isn’t enough, because I look at artists who I think might be struggling with their mental health issues and like Halsey or maybe Azealia Banks, who have been vocal about their mental health struggles. We shove them on this platform, this huge platform, and expect them to do and say the right thing all the time and when they don’t, we crucify them for it. I worry if they have the right people around them, if they have any support networks. And Justin Bieber, once you get to the top – I mean that’s a different world, that top level – I feel like people’s mental health isn’t necessarily looked after that well. At my level of the industry and people I know, we’re all pretty sensitive people and we tend to look out for each other’s mental health and we’re pretty clued up on it. Maybe it’s different in different areas.
In your own experience, have people, such as your manager, been supportive when you’ve been struggling?
Olly Alexander: Well, one of the reasons I love my manager Martha so much is because she totally understands mental health in a way that lots of people don’t. She comes from a family that has experience working in the mental health sector and she’s just very sensitive and knowledgeable in that area. She’s always been super supportive and that’s been really, really helpful. The crew and the team that we have are all pretty sensitive to it and aware of it. A few months ago I had a panic attack before a show and I’d been feeling really low and but people were really supportive. There’s been a process of learning how to manage those things, so yeah, it’s been good.
What do you think the music industry could do to help those struggling with their mental health more?
Olly Alexander: Well, when you become an artist – you never know what’s going to happen. You could take off or you could not. So there’s a lot of crazy, crazy shit which might potentially happen to you doing promo tours or touring the world or going from being someone unknown to someone who’s recognised on the street or going on TV. All of these things are incredibly high-pressured and potentially traumatic. You don’t go to school – or I didn’t anyway (laughs) – on how to cope with that.
I think it would be good if there was an awareness at a more senior level, like a management level and at labels, to make sure that artists are okay, that they are being looked after, have support and someone to talk to if they are struggling. I think most artists feel so lucky, they can’t believe, that these things that come with success, like TV shows, TV appearances and lots of followers on Twitter, they feel lucky to get there but sometimes they feel sad or they get moments of depression – they should be able to talk to people they work with who can help manage that.
Managers should be aware, because artists are vulnerable, sensitive people and, you’ve seen Amy right? We don’t want that to happen again. It’s so incredibly heart-breaking. Once money starts getting made and there’s this crazy whirlwind happening, the artist’s mental well-being and health can start to seem less significant, and the artist doesn’t know it and no-one’s supporting them.
Has fame affected your mental well-being at all?
Olly Alexander: I do sometimes ask myself that question because, I’m not really sure. I think, ‘Would I feel any different if I hadn’t got any success?’ I don’t really have an answer but I suspect I wouldn’t. In terms of the trappings of fame, like people criticising you or whatever, I felt like I had to build the skills to be able to handle those things quickly. I was like, ‘Shit, I need learn how to handle these things quickly, I need to train myself as quickly as possible.’ I think I’ve been pretty lucky because I’ve had so much therapy already (laughs). Also, I’m 25, which is still a child, but I had a bit more time to get my head around who I am and build really good support network.
“(Your struggles) can be your fuel. So long as they don’t consume you, they can be the energy that propels you” – Olly Alexander
Do you think it’s given you confidence?
Olly Alexander: Yeah, I think it has in a way. I feel stronger now, because I had to look at all those things. I’ve had incredible amount of support, which I never would have expected, from people I’ve know and people I’ve never met. And that’s not nothing, that’s a huge deal.
Do you worry about the future, like what you might do after music?
Olly Alexander: I used to worry a lot, but everything comes to an end, that’s just life and you can’t be afraid of that. It can be a really great thing, you know, new opportunities, new things can occur at anytime. Now, I’ve just let go of trying to plan my future. I’ve let go of having specific goals or ambitions or targets and enjoy the privileged position I’m now in. That’s probably what I’m going to keep on doing for a bit. Then I’m going to live in a commune (laughs), a self-sustainable commune.
What advice would you give to young artists or musicians who are struggling with their mental health?
Olly Alexander: If you’re an artist or a musician, I’m sure you’re used to the feeling of struggling with your mental health, used to feeling like you’re not going to make it or you’re not going to achieve anything, questioning the point of it all or struggling creatively. That’s pretty common. But those things make you the artist that you are and you can channel them into the work. They can be your fuel. So long as they don’t consume you, they can be the energy that propels you. In my case it was anyway, I just wanted to channel it all into my songs. Channel it into your work and you can make something positive out of it.
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