Avicii & mental health in electronic music

Avicii & mental health in electronic music

Following the tragic death of EDM superstar Avicii, Rave Reviewz' resident psychiatrist Kamran Ahmed gives an account of the mental health challenges in the electronic music industry...

The sudden and premature death of EDM superstar Avicii sent shock waves around the world, and the recent confirmation that the cause was suicide is sadder still. Tim Bergling accomplished a great deal in his short career, including worldwide No 1 hits and Grammy nominations. Although his productions were unashamedly commercial which divided opinion, his music undeniably resonated with millions around the world.

The touring schedules and party lifestyle to which Avicii became accustomed clearly took their toll on him. Succumbing to a bout of acute pancreatitis on account of heavy drinking, and having his gall bladder and appendix removed in 2014 – he subsequently retired from touring in 2016.

The physical health consequences of the superstar DJ lifestyle were apparent, but the mental health strains that came with it were less obvious, as is often the case. A self-proclaimed introvert, Avicci had spoken out about his anxiety issues in the past. He struggled with the spotlight he had been thrust in to and admitted that his drinking was in part related to this.

Musicians are in fact known to be a high risk group for mental illness – with 71% in a UK study reporting panic attacks or high levels of anxiety and 68% reporting they had experienced depression. In an Australian study, musicians were found to be almost 7 times as likely to have thought about suicide in the past 12 months in comparison to the general population, and to have more than double the rate of suicide attempts. Underlying mental illness, erratic sleep patterns and the omnipresence of alcohol and drugs, combined with the hectic touring schedules and intense scrutiny that come with fame (or for those struggling in their careers, the uncertain income and lack of recognition) can be a highly toxic mix.

Despite their vulnerability, musicians seem to get little support. For those already struggling to make ends meet, access to appropriate services is scarce - and perhaps the opportunity to make millions through tours and ticket sales blinds those charged with looking after those who can afford it to the damage being done. In a documentary about Avicii’s life released months before his death, arguments he has with promoters who want him to continue touring make uncomfortable viewing (trailer below).

The media (and we, the public) also play a part by unhelpfully normalising and even glorifying the excesses of successful musician. Like the rock ‘n’ roll stars of decades past, we almost expect superstar DJs to party non-stop, night after night, fuelled by substances. Avicii’s story should provide a stark reminder that this stereotype needs a refresh.

Fortunately, the change in attitude to mental health issues that we are seeing in many aspects of society is also filtering through to the world of electronic music. Here at Rave Reviewz, during interviews we have asked a number of DJs about their mental health - and have found them to have a clear understanding of the difficulties that come with the lifestyle.

In our recent conversation, Carl Cox reflected on the various emotional and physical strains he faces - the intensity of touring schedules, the contrast between the euphoria of the show followed by the loneliness of the hotel room, being away from friends and family and not being able to spend enough time with his mother before she passed away.

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Nu-disco artist Aeroplane (pictured below) mused ‘once you become successful and start touring a lot and making a career out of it, your health goes out the window pretty quickly. It’s very fun for a few years but if you want to be serious about it you need to make changes and re-calibrate or it’s going to eat you alive.’ His words all the more powerful following the loss of young Tim Bergling.

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Some also explained how they deal with the pressures of their lifestyle - house music producer and DJ Atish (pictured below) was making adjustments to try and cope with the toll of touring like ‘staying sober at most gigs, heavily exercising both at home and on the road, and booking shorter tours with longer breaks in-between’. While Cox explained that to cope he ‘pulls himself away from it’ and engages in activities like camping, fishing and drag-racing.

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Reassuring to hear that these more experienced DJs have an awareness of the issues and employ constructive coping mechanisms, but they are more likely to be in a position to call their own shots. What about the young artists who struggle with the spotlight and turn to drugs and alcohol to help them through it all? And those just starting out who are battling to earn a living?

Improving the availability of mental health services for musicians would be a good start, but the occupational risks in the music industry should also be highlighted to young musicians and they should be encouraged to seek help when they need it. To make this a reality for the young stars who find sudden fame and experience distress as a result, those around them must prioritise their mental health above all else.