Skip to main content

Can music make you sick? A look at the relationship between music and mental health

Have you ever wondered whether music can make you sick? 

It may seem like an unusual question, but 2018 was a year which sadly saw us report on the deaths of many musicians – a number of which were linked to mental health issues including depression and addiction.

As the number of these deaths rose, it grew increasingly difficult to ignore the national headlines prompting us to make a connection between music and mental health disorders, particularly when reading about the prolific deaths of rock and metal performers. Help Musicians UK published a landmark study at the end of 2017 which suggested musicians are three times more likely to experience depression than members of the public, while we investigated both the link between musicians and depression, and how to help those in the music communities around you before the end of the year was out. Elsewhere, musicians including Jacoby Shaddix called for a more frank and open discussion about mental health and the rock scene. But how accurate is it to suggest that rock, metal and mental health are linked? 

To find out, we spoke to Aiden Hatfield, founder of In Music We Trust, a clothing brand that donates 50% of its profits to the mental health charity Mind. A musician who openly suffers with depression, Hatfield believes that music’s role in mental health is complicated, and that while it can provide a healing outlet, it can also become a potential obstacle for musicians getting the help they need. We find out more.

In Music We Trust: The brand

Hatfield founded In Music We Trust in 2014, after the death by suicide of Robin Williams caused him to draw parallels between his own outwardly happy life and the gnawing sadness he was feeling inside. 

When it launched, Hatfield used the brand as a cry for help; a way of alerting the people in his life to what he was going through: “I’m now very open about the fact that I suffer with depression," Hatfield tells Louder. “But I when I started the brand I didn’t even know that I did, because I was too afraid to even go and get a diagnosis.”

The first time Hatfield spoke about IMWT to a local reporter – during an interview about the band he was part of at the time – he was asked if he suffered with depression. “I answered without really knowing, but I said ‘Yes, I guess I do’” says Hatfield. “That happened to be an interview for the BBC, so that reporter told everyone! That was my way of telling the world that I thought there was something up with me.” 

Cause and effect?

It was a further two years after starting the brand that Hatfield was himself diagnosed with depression. He’d been playing guitar and writing songs since the age of thirteen – well over a decade before he’d started IMWT. 

Before setting up the brand, music was Hatfield’s only outlet for the illness he was battling. He suggests this could be one reason why music and mental health issues can appear linked. “Because musicians, especially songwriters, have the outlet through which they can pour their soul, a lot of what they feel can go into their music,” he explains. “So it might not be that depression affects them more, but the fact that music is in their life makes it seem that way, because they can get these words out in song form. Other people might have another outlet, let’s say painting, but because music has words it’s more literal and more obvious when someone is going through dark times. That could be one reason why we view musicians as being more prone to depression.” 

But Hatfield does admit to wondering whether having music as an outlet hindered his diagnosis and treatment. “I often wonder, if I didn’t write songs, would I have sought help for my depression sooner rather than writing it in song form?” he says. “Would I have learnt how to deal with my depression if I didn't have songwriting as an outlet, and would that have been better for me?”

On the surface, this admission could be seen to undermine the ethos of IMWT, the “Music is my medicine” tagline of which features on the brand’s hoodies, t-shirts and beanie hats. However, it’s clear that Hatfield deeply values the way music has helped him cope during his own dark times. Ultimately, music is a tool that helps Hatfield cope with his depression, which is something he believes is true for many others. “Music is a medicine for different people for different reasons,” he says. “Some people put music on and go for a drive in their car, some people like to just sit and listen with their headphones. For me I write a lot of songs, and a lot of what I’m feeling that could potentially exacerbate my depression goes into my songs instead”.

Hatfield’s music falls within the alt-rock genre; one of the genres often portrayed as being more commonly affected by mental health-related deaths than others. For him, it’s not that rock and metal musicians are more prone to these issues. More, that the musical and lyrical styles lend themselves to conveying darker thoughts, making it easier for perceptions to form linking the two.

“Maybe people write this kind of stuff because they’re already dealing with these issues, or maybe people who are dealing with these issues and happen to like rock music feel they can write about it because it suits that genre,” he says. “It might be that people who like that kind of music feel they can be more vocal about feeling depressed because it suits the music.” There’s a certain neat logic to this opinion, and Hatfield’s own upcoming EP will document events and struggles he has faced in his life, as well as how he relies on music to help deal with those struggles.

Fighting stigma that comes from within

A core focus of Hatfield’s work is spreading the word that “most people are more than fine with people admitting they suffer with depression”. For years he thought he would be judged, but found that wasn’t the case: “I believe that a lot of the stigma with regards to depression comes from those who suffer with depression. I think we can convince ourselves that if we tell people we have depression the world will be against us. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who judge those dealing with depression, but in reality there are way more people who are willing to be understanding then we realise.” 

It’s acknowledged that, generally speaking, men are more likely to feel judged if they admit to suffering with depression or anxiety. It’s also reported that one in ten men feeling like they have nobody to turn to for emotional support, compared with one in 20 women. Sadly, this disparity is reflected by UK suicide statistics. Whilst the Mental Health Foundation found that women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to Samaritans, men in the UK are three times more likely than women to take their own lives.

Hatfield is not a medical professional and does not give advice regarding what people should do if they think they have depression. But he does offer his opinion that talking through your thoughts and feelings is massively underrated coping tool: “Talking to somebody about how you feel does absolute wonders. Whether you go to your doctor, a friend or family member, that can massively help.” 

In Music We Trust: The future

As well as continuing to grow IMWT, Hatfield will be releasing his debut EP Chapter One in March 2019. Will playing music ever take over from the work he does as a mental health advocate? It seems the two come hand in hand now:  

“Music is and always will be full time for me, but I want my gigs to be a place where people can come to meet others who can support them. I will promote my music, In Music We Trust, talking and good mental health all as one package when I am out on tour. That is my point. That is what I do.”

Aiden Hatfield’s debut single, This Is Never Ending, will be available via iTunes on January 18. 

Aiden Hatfield is not a medical professional and does not work for Mind. For more information on mental illness, or guidance on where to seek help for yourself or a loved, one visit Mind.org.uk.