Whilst preparing this post for social media about the all-too-often unspoken, serious mental health issues experienced by DJs and producers, news came to me that Erick Morillo, DJ and cofounder of Subliminal Records, was found dead on 1 September. In 2016, Morillo opened up to Pete Tong about how his mental illness just “unravelled”, and about his subsequent addiction to Ketamine. The article below features DJ Brandon Block and myself talking to Molly Gardner in Mixmag about the very same topic of how DJs are reluctant to face up to and talk about the toll that their work takes on their mental state, their relationships and their psychological and physical health. When I’m approached by this client base, it’s all too reluctantly, and with a perceived sense of shame and a judgment that it's weak to seek expert professional help and advice, particularly when viewed as successful and prolific within the dance community. I want to say - to anyone who’s hesitant in seeking therapy, but particularly DJs, it’s not weak: you have every right to be private about it, but don’t be alone with it - take courage, speak to a trusted friend and don’t be afraid to go to a specialist therapist to get your psychological health back on track.
DJ MINDS MATTER
A n x i e t y , d e p r e s s i o n ,
i s o l a t i o n a n d a d d i c t i o n .
N i n e t i e s a c i d h o u se
p h e n o m e n o n B r a n d o n B l o c k a n d o t h e r i n d u s t r y
p r o f e s s i o n a l s d e t a i l t h e
p s y c h o l o g i c a l d a n g e r s
o f l i f e a s a D J .
“I could only describe that time as a trench in hell, I was very ill and given two weeks to live.”
DANCE MUSIC’S ENTICING nature can quickly lure any aspiring DJ into its grasp. Controlling a room full of a thousand or so music lovers, reaping the satisfaction from their euphoric moving bodies. If successful like Guetta, Garrix or Prydz, you’re earning thousands, perhaps millions a year, travelling the world, partying day and night, adored by complete strangers. But after stepping down from the decks, the stark reality is that you’re no longer the centre of attention. Going back to that hotel in the middle of nowhere, ready to be up in three hours so you can work on producing the music you used to love making. The alcohol you drank and the drugs you took just to keep awake are wearing off. Your mind is screaming at you to just take a break, but you can’t. You’re succeeding, this is all you wanted to do, so why would you throw that all away? DJing has been painted as this idyllic lifestyle for generations, but it’s evident that this intense way of life is taking its toll on the mental health of DJs. Talk around the issue has surged since the suicide of dance music legend, Avicii, in April this year. It was reported factors such as anxiety and depression caused by the pressures of the music industry where partly to blame for the death of the 28 year old Swedish DJ. In the case of 90’s house phenomenon, Brandon Block, it took till the age of 51 for him to realise how damaging the lifestyle of being a world renowned DJ could really be. “We would never talk about our ‘mental stage’ back in the day,” says Brandon, who held a residency at Space Ibiza in ’91 alongside friend and fellow British DJ, Alex P. “Whether that was because we didn’t actually know we weren’t feeling okay or we just didn’t want to talk about it. In those days you’d just medicate through drugs and drinking, now we’re feeling the aftermath 20 years down the line.” As one of Britain’s leading psychotherapists for musicians, Helen Brice has provided therapy for numerous artists in the limelight. Her workload in the last year has ‘significantly increased’, with 14 DJs seeking her services just in the last year. “It can get really lonely as a DJ and to keep awake a lot of them will take drugs,” says Helen, who describes how this reliance on drink and drugs is an ineffective coping skill for most DJs. “These could be prescribed or recreational drugs, but The DJs I’ve spoken to usually take them to help them socialise and stay awake. The long hours that they’re doing can take its toll and sometimes this dependence can get out of hand.” This was the case for Brandon Block, who in 1996, was hospitalised over his excessive drug and alcohol abuse, which saw him diagnosed with a rare and severe form of tuberculosis and hepatitis. “I could only describe that time as a ‘trench in hell’, I was very ill and was given two weeks to live. I remember it was as if a sort of clunk happened in my head, I realise now that was my anxiety reaching its utter peak. I was dying, I wasn’t ready to die.” It’s not always just the dynamics of the electronic dance music culture which cause DJs to turn to drugs and alcohol. Helen explained how her therapy can tease out some of the underlying issues which are causing DJs to turn to these substances. “I always treat the client as the expert of themselves, in terms of listening to their experience of what has brought them to therapy now. They can look at some of the underlying factors that lead them to taking drugs, i.e, what does their world looks like without drugs, which is longer term work. Some of them don’t want to go there though because it might be things they’ve not dealt with before, usually they’ve been concentrating on their career instead.” It was only after extensive therapy that Brandon realised his excessive use of recreational drugs was to cover past trauma, something he didn’t have chance to deal with in his DJ days.“The reason I stooped to the level I did was because I had a lot of underlying issues,” explains Brandon, who has now shifted his career path into becoming a life coach to help other struggling addicts. “It was childhood experiences where I suppose I felt unloved and unwanted, nothing to do with bad parenting just my own personal emotions that I guess I hadn’t recognised.” Since Avicii’s death, other big name DJs such as Hardwell and Laidback Luke have all spoken out about their personal mental health stories. However, Helen believes that this is not enough.
“Even though you hear people outing themselves by stating ‘I am a depressive’, it’s usually after they’ve had therapy and then they’re okay talking about it. The truth is that prior to therapy, they’re just too embarrassed to appear weak, and they associates poor mental health withweakness - sadly, that’s common across the board.” Like Brandon and many other DJs from the ’90s, the fear of becoming irrelevant is rife. Shows like Top of the Pops were cancelled and the rise of the internet DJ took over. The scene became an open market for introverted teenage producers in their bedrooms to become overnight sensations. “We know fame is a big factor on your health, it changes your mental state,” says Brandon. “We know fame is a big factor on your health, it changes your mental state,” says Brandon. “Am I going to be liked? What happens when I’m not famous anymore and the money runs out and the recognition fades? For me I struggled with that.” This hunger for fame and success can come at a detrimental cost. A piece of research published in 2012, ’Dying to be Famous’, appeared to show that successful musicians do in fact have a shortened life expectancy. “We found a similar sort of pattern when conducting our research for Help Musicians UK,” explains Sally-Anne Gross, the music industry academic who conducted the ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ study back in 2016.
30 The number of fans and DJs we surveyed on the mental health of DJs.
70% of respondents thought poor mental health was prominent amongst DJs.
68% of DJ respondents didn’t know where to seek help if they’re struggling with poor mental health.
78% think mental health amongst DJs is being more widely discussed compared to a year ago.
“The hardest thing is when you go from being the centre of attention to driving home on your own at three in the morning.”
“The artists who were struggling tended to be those who were doing well. They’re working 24/7 under an unbelievable sense of pressure to make hay while the sun shines. You have to keep on the wheel because you’re earning money right now. It's incredible pressure for people not to take time off, no time to relax, and that’s not like any normal job.” The research conducted by both Sally and Dr George Musgrave, an academic and MC who raps under the name Context, highlighted that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression in comparison to the general public. To bring some of these results up to date, we at Mixmag conducted a smaller, focused survey on a group of 30 people, both fans and DJs, to find out their opinions on mental health in the dance music industry. Just over 70% of the respondents said they thought poor mental health was prominent amongst DJs. Factors such as sleep deprivation, isolation, competitiveness of the industry as well as the drink and drug culture were all to blame according to the study. Around 78% however, said they thought the topic of mental health amongst DJs was being more widely discussed in comparison to a year ago. The main consensus was that the suicide of Avicii had encouraged other DJs to speak out about their struggle, as well as pointing out how damaging the electronic dance industry can be on a DJs mental state.
One respondent observed: “The hardest thing I find is when you go from being the centre of attention and in full party mode where everyone loves you, to being on your own driving home with all your kit in the car at three in the morning.” When asked what more they’d like to see done to help struggling DJs, one person simply put: “More awareness, more communication, more understanding, more love & more listening”. Music Minds Matter, a 24/7 helpline for musicians, was set up as a result of Sally and George’s work. Although help and support has been put in place for DJs, Sally believes there is still more to be done for all musicians struggling as a result of the industry. “When I first started talking about this it was 2015, and people were very reluctant to even acknowledge the idea that something was wrong. I feel like the discussions are actually happening now. Lots needs to change, but I feel more confident about the future. It’s so important that people do highlight the downside to this creative industry because it's unsustainable and something's got to give, rather than losing more people in these really tragic and otherwise avoidable circumstances.
Foward by Helen Brice.
Words by Molly Gardener.
Photo courtesy TPWF.