The 3 Ms: Musicians, Mental Illness, and Substance Misuse

Whitney Houston and Dave Brockie — What do they have in common?

Both of them died from substance misuse. DMX, Juice Wrld, Tom Petty, and Prince are just a few artists whose deaths are related to overdosing. It is common knowledge that musicians (popular ones with fame) tend to have a high rate of mental illness. Some studies even show that musicians agree that their mental health has impacted their performance in the past year (Berg et al., 2022). Common mental illnesses that impede said performance are depression and anxiety (Krueger & Zhen, 2018). Gross & Musgrave (2016) found that depression and anxiety rates were three-times higher in musicians when compared to the general population. In addition to the heightened rates of mental illness, musicians also have higher rates of substance misuse and risky alcohol consumption (Krueger & Zhen, 2018).

Why musicians? What makes them different from everyone else?

Research theorizes that musicians and other artists whose lifestyle depends on their creativity, are predisposed to mental illness (Andreasen & Canter, 1974). Researchers found that illnesses including bipolar disorder are prominent in those who have occupations that rely on the creative nature of their work (Andreasen & Canter, 1974). It makes sense though. Imagine if your income and fame depended on your ability to create content for the public’s consumption. The financial stress, social burden, and need for occupational success may contribute to the mental health burden that musicians face. Their ability to survive is dependent on the happiness and support of their fan base.

In addition to the stress associated with survival contingent upon others, in many cases, musicians who are signed to labels have limited artistic control. In some cases, artists can be extremely talented and still not receive the proportion of financial compensation they deserve. Take concerts for example, have you thought about how many people need to be employed for a concert/tour to be successful. Crew for the stage, technicians, band, background dancers, opening performers, security guards, and choreographers are just a few jobs necessary for a concert to take place. Who pays them? How much money does the artist get to keep? Can they survive on that amount of money?

These are all good questions. In fact, a study by Dr. Berg and his team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin used an online survey to study occupational stress related to music. They tried to examine the gap in understanding the stress and mental health burden associated with popular musicians. Researchers wanted to know if occupational and financial stress would be associated with levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse. This study looked at low-income musicians who previously received treatment for mental health concerns. The survey used over one-hundred items that assessed eligibility, musician-specific occupational stress, financial stress, anxiety, depression, and alcohol misuse. Researchers used scales that measured occupational stress, financial wellness, depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse.

Statistics and Findings (Berg et al., 2022)

Data from 317 responses found that an overwhelming majority of participants were working as a musician for over a decade, nevertheless, their median income was less than $20,000. Most respondents worked at least two jobs to support their musical careers. See the figure below for a breakdown of different self-reported statistics.

What does this mean?

The findings of this research support the hypothesis that both occupational stress and financial stress are associated with significant levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse. The statistics show that musicians who report high levels of occupational stress were three-times more likely to report depression and anxiety when compared to those who did not report high levels of stress. On the other hand, alcohol misuse in musicians was not associated with either occupational stress or financial stress. One possible explanation for this is that as the tolerance of substances increases, musicians might look to more aggressive (and potent) substances to cope with undiagnosed depression and/or anxiety. What do you think?

While this study did a great job of using self-report data to draw conclusions, there is still room for more research. What treatment and interventions can be used in both musicians and other people who deal with occupational and financial stress? Can these findings translate to other occupations that rely on a creative frame of mind (artists, writers, poets)?

Additionally, there are still musicians (and non-musicians) who are struggling with occupational and financial stress that may not have been given the opportunity to share their responses in this study. Moreover, self-report data is not the most reliable; some people may forge their answers in fear of being judged despite confidentiality. It may be easy to say, “musicians use drugs because they can’t handle fame.” That is an oversimplified statement that does not look at the internal struggles that musicians face. Their survival is contingent upon the support of people who they have never met (you and I). Next time you try to label the actions of a musician, think about the depression and anxiety they might face from a lack of support which leads to occupational and financial stress. Think about the musicians who have not made it in the industry because of the lack of support. Think about those who are trying to live their dream of being famous in the industry. While we are unsure of the next steps to combat this situation, we do not want the future of music to end up like Whitney Houston, Dave Brockie, and Prince. Support artists and appreciate their craft. You never know the impact a share on Facebook could have on the life of a struggling musician.


Andreasen, N., Canter, A. (1974). The creative writer: Psychiatric symptoms and family history. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 15, 123–131.

Berg, L., King, B., Koenig, J., & McRoberts, R. L. (2022). Musician occupational and financial stress and mental health burden. Psychology of Music.

Gross, S., Musgrave, G. (2016). Can music make you sick? Music and depression: A study into the incidence of musicians mental health part 1: Pilot survey report. MusicTank Publishing; Help Musicians.

Krueger, A., Zhen, Y. (2018). Inaugural Music Industry Research Association (MIRA) survey of musicians [Unpublished manuscript]. Survey Research Center, Princeton University.

What goes into concert cost breakdown? (2022).

Header image:

Feehan, R. C. and J. (2020, January 2). Focus on making more money from music this year. Disc Makers Blog. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from




posts from the U of Maryland’s Music Perception & Cognition course (PSYC 489X)

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Sophia Shaw

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