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Mental Health Takes Center Stage As Pandemic Devastates Nashville's Live Music Scene

Joshua Schultz, a Nashville-based tour lighting designer who was already in recovery from a painkiller addiction at the time the pandemic began, shares his struggles with mental health.
Joshua Schultz, a Nashville-based tour lighting designer who was already in recovery from a painkiller addiction at the time the pandemic began, shares his struggles with mental health.

When COVID-19 took hold, financial support unsurprisingly topped the list of priorities for most nonprofits who provide direct assistance to people in the live music industry. But, as weeks off of the road turned into months and now over a year, mental health remains a major concern for those whose stages have sat blank and silent for so long.

"I was on the way up again, and this couldn't have come at a worse time," says Joshua Schultz, a Nashville-based tour lighting designer who was already in recovery from a painkiller addiction at the time the pandemic hit full tilt. "My phone hasn't rung for a job in a year. I don't see the end. I know that it's coming. I just don't know when."

Pre-pandemic surveys confirmed that people in the music industry already have higher rates of depression and anxiety. For those who self-medicate with drug use, COVID further complicated their addiction. For Schultz, it was an underlying anxiety that expressed itself in new ways, now that he had infinite downtime. He says he went from taking 20,000 steps a day to five: "From the bed to the couch."

"I know that I'm doing bad," Schultz says. "I feel like a recluse." But that didn't drive him to picking up the phone and checking on his fellow road warriors.

"It's a trigger effect," he says. "I think that's what a lot of us have been dealing with. How do we deal with that isolation?"

Nashville Hit Hard

Jobs and lives that rely on crowds were, of course, almost wholly paused by the pandemic. But some cities took it harder than others. In Nashville, roughly one-third of arts and music jobs vanished between April and July 2020, according to a Brookings Institute study. For the music industry specifically, Nashville is considered to have the highest concentration of industry jobs – the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds it's not even close: Nashville has more than 2,000 musicians and musical groups — eight times the national average on a per-capita basis. According to pandemic survey data, depending on the specific occupation, COVID-19 took a toll on the mental health of roughly 70% of people in the industry.

"It was from the pinnacle to the outhouse within a night. I'm not sure there's another industry that can comprehend that," says Tatum Allsep of the Music Health Alliance, which launched in 2013 primarily to help gig-based musicians find affordable health insurance through Obamacare.

The nonprofit's client list quadrupled in 2020, but it wasn't until the fall — when it was unclear when the pandemic would ever let up — that Allsep says the need requests took a turn. Instead of help paying the bills, clients were seeking rehab and counseling.

Seeing that accelerating need for mental health support, this year MHA launched two funds with the Music Business Association, Scars Foundation and the Country Music Association to pay for creatives and those working on the corporate side of the business to see a counselor. In its first few weeks, Allsep says 50 people were linked up with counselors for at least five free sessions.

"In a creative industry, in general, mental health is always a factor. That's just part of the creative spirit. We've always known that. This brought it to a whole new level," Allsep says.

Lost Livelihoods, Lost Purpose

The pandemic compounded any pre-existing mental health challenges, and songwriters, musicians, engineers and music label employees had just lost their livelihoods along with the structure of their life. Even moderate drinkers or drug users increased their usage to cope with the uncertainty and stress, says Erica Krusen, senior director of MusiCares Foundation.

"These musicians and crew really struggled with identity. 'What do I do? What am I doing now?' " she says. After months of grappling with those questions, the lost purpose became measurable. A MusiCares survey found that more than a quarter of respondents faced moderate to severe levels of depression.

"As the pandemic grew and continued to go on month after month, we knew the mental health and addiction issues were coming right behind it, and they sure did," Krusen says. MusiCares helps pay for people in the music industry to get into rehab, but the organization also expanded emotional support groups, which are based in music industry cities. They were meeting virtually, which allowed anyone in the world to participate, but they still needed to add two more groups this spring to accommodate the rising need.

'People Really Do Need Each Other'

Beyond fighting back existing addictions, the pandemic surfaced relational stress and emotional struggles, particularly anxiety, says Al Andrews of Porter's Call.

"There is a generalized anxiety that has gotten worse and worse," he says.

The Nashville-based counseling service for recording artists has been running beyond its own capacity to meet the pandemic needs. And there's a frequent question: What am I going to do?

Andrews says he doesn't have a lot of answers. So instead he asks: What does this make possible?

For some, they've been able to spend more time with family. Others have finally figured out that getting a good night's sleep resolves many of their mental health problems. But most, Andrews says, are realizing that they are part of a community, not just an "industry."

"People really do need each other," he says. "I think it has brought this human need that we really need each other really badly."

While talking about mental health had already become less taboo, now everyone is part of the struggle, Andrews says. There's hope that the newfound openness can last beyond the pandemic.

There's also hope that the return of live music can mend much of what's been ailing people in the industry. In late February, Andrews attended the first show in nearly a year, performed by his friends Drew and Ellie Holcomb at the famed Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The hard pews were practically empty because of COVID precautions, so even as they finished their pandemic anthem "End of the World," the applause wasn't enough to make the wooden rafters ring.

But it was electric all the same. In another time, Andrews would have felt sad for his friends on stage.

"They would have been depressed, probably on my couch the next day," Andrews says of the gig, poorly attended by any standard except the current one. "But there was nothing but joy — and some choking-back-the-tears moments."

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