Today has been tough. I’ll be honest. Waking to news of another high-profile musician’s death in the early hours of the morning was difficult enough. Discovering his death was by his own hand? Devastating.
One of my least favourite things as a music journalist is reporting deaths. Whether by overdose, hanging or other means, it’s a horrible thing to write about. You want to be respectful to the artist and their loved ones, and you want to report as much truth as possible; but at the same time, merely typing the words can feel like dancing on someone’s grave.
Unfortunately, mental health is something often hidden by sufferers due to the stigma somehow still attached to depression and anxiety in society. We often refer to depression as ‘the black dog,’ as if that will somehow make it easier to digest.
Some people are open about it: ARIA-winning rapper 360 opened up via social media last year about his struggles with addiction, depression and his experience with psychiatrists diagnosing his condition, and co-founded The 180 Movement (which deals with mental health and addiction), while The Voice 2013 runner-up Luke Kennedy very publicly admitted to his battles with depression whilst on the television show, and in subsequent interviews.
Some people aren’t quite as explicit in their disclosure. Chester Bennington was one of them.
In hindsight (both a blessing and a curse) Bennington was honest with us all along. Linkin Park’s last album – which garnered a lot of unnecessarily harsh criticism – featured a song called Heavy. Many today are saying this was a hint of things to come.
The track, penned by Bennington and band mates Brad Delson and Mike Shinoda, was also co-written by Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. So, it wasn’t just on Chester. But the lyrics have haunted people all day: “I don’t like my mind right now/Stacking up problems that are so unnecessary/Wish that I could slow things down/I wanna let go but there’s comfort in the panic/And I drive myself crazy/Thinking everything’s about me/Yeah, I drive myself crazy/’Cause I can’t escape the gravity/I’m holding on/Why is everything so heavy?/Holding on/So much more than I can carry/I keep dragging around what’s bringing me down/If I just let go, I’d be set free/Holding on/Why is everything so heavy?”
Shinoda previously told Billboard that Bennington was not in a good frame of mind the day the song was written: “I remember Chester walked in and it was, ‘Hey, how are you doing today?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ and we were hanging out for a minute and he was like, ‘Y’know what? I have to be honest. I’m not fine. I’m not okay. Too much stuff is just happening to me. I just feel underwater’,” Mike said in the interview.
“It was like that saying ‘when it rains it pours’. It’s that kind of feeling that stuff is piling up one on top of the other, and it creates this feeling of just being overwhelmed, like, ‘Things feel so heavy to me…’”
It’s no secret that the band, and Bennington himself, copped a lot of backlash over their last record, One More Light. They were mercilessly trolled and bullied online, called “sell outs” and worse by fans and foe. The band stood by their efforts, with Bennington at times harshly defending the record with a literal “fuck you!” to the naysayers.
Hiding behind keyboards is one thing. Throwing things at the band whilst onstage another. Check out this video of Heavy from one of their last performances at Hellfest:
Compare the audience reaction there to this clip of a track from their early days, Bleed It Out:
We’ve seen it before, when entertainers are pushed too far by trolls and tormentors online – just look what happened with Charlotte Dawson. Whether these people forget the targets of their attacks are humans with emotional scars and their own demons, or they simply don’t care (perhaps down to the anonymity of the internet – in a weird situation where we feel like we know these people personally because they’re in the public eye, yet we remain an anonymous face behind a screen name) I’m not entirely certain.
What I do know, however, is the startling statistics surrounding mental health in the music industry in particular.
A number of studies have been conducted in Australia, including a 2015 Victoria University study commissioned by support organisation Entertainment Assist, which found that a combination of low wages, irregular hours, and a workplace immersed in alcohol and drugs contribute to musicians being five times more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of us, and 10 times more likely to have some form of anxiety.
A Queensland study from the same year found that nine out of 10 musos had a precarious work situation, and almost two-thirds were drinking at harmful levels.
The statistics aren’t limited to performers: the aforementioned Victorian study found that 25% of artists and almost 50% of roadies have attempted or considered suicide… and none of the roadies surveyed had sought help. In fact, those working in the entertainment industry had considered taking their own lives seven times more than the general population in the last 12 months, according to the statistics.
It also gave us data indicating that performers live much shorter lives, on average, than the rest of us, with the average performing artist life expectancy sitting at 57 years.
The results of American research published in 2015 went further into causes of death for each genre of music, and found suicide was significantly higher in Punk (11.0%) and Metal (19.3%) than any other genre (Gospel was recorded at 0.9%). Punk and Metal were also significantly higher for accidental deaths (ie, drug overdose) at 30.0% and 36.2% respectively.
Whether it is the ‘tortured artist’ mentality, the morbidly sentimentalised ’27 Club’, or simply the fact that a majority of the music industry is made up of men, and men are socially conditioned not to speak about or show their true feelings (with a large stigma still surrounding mental health in particular) doesn’t really matter. What matters is what we do about it.
Today, there are six children without a father. A wife without a husband. Countless loved ones are grieving. Sure, fathers and husbands take their lives every day and we don’t hear about it. We don’t speak about it. And perhaps that is part of the problem. If nothing else, the events of today simply hold a mirror to an issue the industry – and society – need to address.
If someone like Chester Bennington – a man hugely successful in his chosen career; a man with enough money to be very comfortable, all the material possessions a person could want and a loving family; a man adored by and looked up to by millions – could succumb to his demons, it could happen to anyone. That is the big take away from today. By all accounts, he seemed okay. He seemed happy and optimistic. But he was suffering. And now, he isn’t.
My greatest wish today is that he could have seen the massive outpouring of love being shown for him in death, before he ended his life. And that anyone else that is suffering the same way reaches out and talks to somebody. Anybody. There are always people willing to listen if you’re not okay. And it is okay to not be okay.
The statistics are clear. The consequences are clear. But what can we; as a society, as an industry, as people; do to stop this sort of thing from happening so often?