Mental Health and the Music Industry by EJ Scanlan
Hi, my name’s EJ Scanlan, I’m 22, 23 next month, I’m from Nottingham and I’m a broadcaster and music journalist, writing about new albums and geeking out about anything to do with music, but I’ve decided to write about something a little more closer to home… Today is Mental Health Awareness Day, and it’s a day that means a lot to me, as someone who suffers quite badly with mental health. I wanted to write about my own issues with mental health and how exactly music saved my life many times. I’m also going to be tackling the issues it has too on a personal level.
My musical knowledge was incredibly limited growing up. I always watched The X Factor, which was at its prime when I fell in love with pop music, hell even “A Moment Like This” by Leona Lewis was the first CD single I’d ever brought. I also grew up listening to Trent FM, one of the UK’s biggest independent radio stations, which was also Nottingham’s local station at the time, which played all the modern pop hits such as Girls Aloud, Kelly Clarkson, Ne-Yo, Pitbull and so many more, so I was always big on that genre, because I didn’t know much else, besides Kings Of Leon because Trent always played “Use Somebody”, “Sex On Fire” and eventually “Radioactive”, which has turned into one of my favourite songs by them, and all of my Dad’s heavy metal bands, which I could never really get into.
When I entered secondary school in September 2010, I was bullied all the way through until I left, I thought it was because I have mild cerebral palsy, then because I’m autistic, to then realise it was for both of those things and because of my entire personality and who I am, but we’ll delve more into that later. In the first year, I randomly experimented with my music taste a little bit. I discovered Evanescence, Paramore and You Me At Six, and from there, my emo phase began. For the first time, I heard musicians who were really going for it and where the music felt natural. A rush of adrenaline rushed through my veins when Oli Sykes of Bring Me The Horizon featured on You Me At Six’s “Bite My Tongue” and screamed ‘you wanna drag me down some more, fuck you’. Those lyrics were the first ones that really spoke to me, and I also had my mouth wide open as I was told from both of my divorced parents that I wasn’t allowed to use, listen to or know any explicit language. As a 13 year old autistic and disabled emo-kid that also listened to Jessie J (don’t ask…), for the first time, I felt like I wasn’t going through this alone, and that helped me a lot.
In the summer of my second year in secondary school, I went to my first music festival, which was Splendour in Nottingham, headlined by Dizzee Rascal, Razorlight and the Levellers. But it was Katy B’s set where I felt my first real sense of euphoria. The dancing, the jumping, the mosh pits happening around me, the random shoe that was accidentally tossed at me, the entire atmosphere was everything I was missing from my life, and it was the happiest I had ever been. From that very moment, I knew where my safe space was, I knew that music had captured my heart and my soul and that I was always going to have it in my life, for better or worse. This discovery made me invested in music even more, and I discovered indie music in the form of Jake Bugg, Arctic Monkeys and London Grammar, I made my own radio station in my bedroom, and I knew that no matter what happened at school, no matter how I felt, I always had music that I knew would always look after me.
As I kept discovering more and more new music, the bullying at my school got worse. It went from people calling me a ‘spaz’ and many other horrible names to physical, I was kicked, punched, pushed over, manipulated and everything else. I often cried in the toilets, where in one instance, a lad in my year, who knew I was in the toilet next door pissed on the floor so it would go into my cubicle, I had no escape. The people I thought were my friends used me, I was going incredibly introverted, and when I did find the people I clicked with, I found out only one of them genuinely liked me (we’re actually still friends now) and the rest of them would talk shit about me behind my back. I had nowhere to turn, the music wasn’t helping anymore, my behaviour towards my family was disgusting because I needed to get my anger out and I hated my entire existence. Exam pressure was piling on, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression just before I turned 16 and a few months later, I attempted suicide as I just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s been six years since I left school and I’m still dealing with it all, to the point that four years later I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which I still battle with every single day.
It took me a very long time to get back on track after I left school, but music was always there, and it helped a lot with my recovery. I discovered many new artists through Spotify, BBC Radio 1, especially Annie Mac and many more. I fell in love with all of it all over again, going to so many more gigs as a result, feeling that very euphoria I felt in 2012 during Katy B’s set at Splendour Festival, and it worked, most of the time.
Since school, I have always had really bad anxiety and depression, and I use gigs to help combat that, because of that very euphoria. My family couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get out of bed because of anxiety to then go out to a gig with thousands of people in a small secluded space. It still sounds weird now, but all I can say is that it’s that euphoria you feel that makes everything worth it. The unity of the crowd, the music and everything else gives everything in my life purpose.
But, very occasionally, it is that close proximity of people in a small place that can make you go the opposite way, into a full-on panic attack. For me, it’s all about the circumstances, how you feel in that very moment. Sometimes, it’s the people, seeing someone you know who you want to avoid; it can be the sudden bang of pyrotechnics of confetti cannons going off which can trigger things, it can be the negative experience you have with a particular song, it can be the mosh pits and the claustrophobia you have, or it can be getting felt up by an incredibly sexist man. It could be anything, and when it does happen, it fucking sucks, because you forget about the initial feeling you’re there and the anxiety overpowers anything else that you think or feel.
This has only happened to me four times while at a gig. Once was three years ago when I was on my own, writing a review on a gig and randomly felt incredibly anxious in the crowd, I couldn’t have a cigarette because the smoking area was rammed, I couldn’t get water because the only place I could get it was where the support band was and I didn’t want them to see me and I couldn’t sit down because the toilets were rammed, and probably had a lot of piss over the seat. So I ended up leaving, feeling physically sick at the thought of not being able to give the review I promised my then-editor because of my sheer anxiety. Another time was when I saw someone I thought was an old school bully at a gig and I then went out to have a full PTSD attack, the third time was when the crowd was getting to claustrophobic and I felt as though I was in an unsafe atmosphere and the last time was just two weeks ago, when I went to a festival on my own and couldn’t even see one act because my anxiety was all over the place.
So, why exactly am I writing this? Why am I ranting to you about my panic attacks instead of roasting an album? Well, because I wanted to combat a common misconception people have… A lot of people think people involved in the music industry are fine. This is their job, they don’t struggle with mental health, especially within their own industry. The fact is, those people are wrong. There are artists who have full on anxiety attacks before coming on stage, there are journalists that often have to cancel interviews or articles because of their sheer anxiety, music photographers who don’t feel like they can attend gigs because they can’t face being in a crowd. Mental health affects all of us, even the people you don’t expect. I’ve cancelled radio shows, interviews, and full blown articles before because my mental health has been so bad. As creatives, we often compare ourselves to other people in our industry and it can often make us feel inferior. This industry is a bitch sometimes. But why do we carry on? Because for me, music is in my blood. I know that when I have an anxiety attack or a mental health breakdown as a result of a gig or anxiety that I won’t feel like this forever, and that euphoria is still there. That passion is still there, because despite its flaws, the music industry is the best one in the world, and I’m incredibly lucky to be a part of it and it has saved my life countless times and it will continue to save me until the day I die.
So the main takeaway of this article is… mental health is present in the music industry, and everywhere else. The more we talk about these issues, the more we can understand and the more we can learn. So, let’s get talking, and let’s be sure to listen too.