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It’s Not Just ‘Exhaustion’: Why Mental Health Is Finally a Priority for Music Artists

Harder to Breathe by Ryan Dusick
Thought Leader: Ryan Dusick
October 26, 2022
Source: Variety

I’ll admit it. I used to think pop stars who canceled tours “due to exhaustion” were just being divas, or worse-yet, downplaying a major drug or alcohol problem… until I suffered a breakdown on tour that effectively ended my career as a performing musician and sent me into a tailspin of depression, anxiety and alcoholism that lasted a decade.

As the founding drummer of Maroon 5, I endured physical and psychological injuries from the relentless touring in support of our album “Songs About Jane,” and in those days, there wasn’t a whole lot I could say to prevent the problem from escalating to the disastrous point that it did.

We were in the middle of a four-year, global promotional campaign, during which we were instructed to “say yes to everything,” and any breaks in our schedule quickly evaporated as our album blew up on a massive scale. Just when it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor, my body and mind gave out on me, and this breakdown proved devastating not only to my career but to the very fabric of my being.

In recent months, several young artists including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Arlo Parks and Lil Baby have canceled tour dates due to concerns about their mental and physical health. As a mental health professional now, I see these performers taking proactive steps to prevent a major breakdown as an encouraging sign that the music industry is beginning to prioritize the mental health of its artists more than it did in previous generations.

Understandably, many promoters and performers alike are very hesitant to postpone or cancel tour dates when there is significant money to be made. Success is fickle, and the ability to cash in on a hit is an opportunity that few would like to squander. The reality, however, is that future success for these artists is reliant on their capacity to find balance not only as performers but as human beings. While there is money to be made right now, there will be no more to be made in the future if the individual at the center of it implodes to a devastating degree.

A great performer can make an epic show seem effortless. And their audience feels like this magical event was a transcendent moment designed specifically for them. But performing in this way night after night, over long stretches of time and distance, even when you’re not feeling well physically or psychologically, takes a toll on any human being.

It’s understandable why the casual viewer might believe an artist enjoying massive success is just being whiny when they complain about the lifestyle wearing them down, but just imagine having the responsibility of fronting a multi-million-dollar enterprise; the livelihoods of hundreds of employees; and the satisfaction of thousands of eager fans all riding on your ability to show up as an epic performer day after day — without complaining or having the option of taking a sick day.

When you or I have a bad day at work, we take the weekend and feel better by Monday. When the machinery of an industry hangs on an artist’s ability to be their most dynamic self in every context, the pressure to suck it up and perform can be tremendous. Taking the necessary steps to avoid exacerbating this level of stress is actually quite essential to the longevity of that performer’s career.

I don’t know if I would still be performing as the drummer of Maroon 5 today had I possessed the luxury of taking time off in the midst of our burgeoning pop stardom. As it turned out, I was able to turn a decade of suffering into a new career as a mental health professional, after I finally found recovery and discovered new tools for living a more centered and balanced life.

The work I do now as a therapist and author has been equally, if not even more, fulfilling than creating music and performing. But I’ll never know what could have been in my career with Maroon 5, because the pressures of performing wore me down to such an extent that continuing was no longer an option. I am truly blessed to have found a second act in my life, but others may not be so lucky. Anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health challenges can lead to outcomes far worse than just losing your career as a performer.

I would much rather see a talented young artist take some time to find balance and enjoy a long, fruitful career, than see them burn brightly for a short time and then burn out completely. We’ve seen that old tale play out too many times in the history of pop culture. Perhaps now is the time the industry begins to take steps to save our great young talents from suffering the same fate. I commend these artists and their promotional teams for prioritizing health, balance and longevity over immediate profit, and I hope this is just the beginning of a new approach to fostering such talent over the long term. All of us will profit more from seeing them continue to flourish than to make a quick buck and pay a greater price.

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