Musicians and Addiction: Research and Recovery Stories

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Release Date: 
May 8, 2020
Music Australia
Reviewed by: 

“Get this book if you’re in the industry. With better understanding, we may be able to help more of our musicians heal.”

Have you ever wondered why musicians seem to have such a high prevalence of addiction? Musicians and Addiction: Research and Recovery Stories, edited by Paul Saintilan, explores that subject. This book is an important work that compiles resources for treatment professionals, musicians, and those interested in the intersection between creativity and substance abuse.

The research on musicians and addiction is extensive. Saintilan has done an excellent job of synthesizing multiple perspectives on the subject, including research, excerpts from published stories, and stories provided specifically for this work. He also includes six appendices that provide information on recovery resources and access to a companion website with additional research that may be of interest to mental health researchers and clinicians.

For decades there has been evidence that musicians (and other artists) struggle with substance abuse, perhaps at rates higher than the general public. Is there a correlation between creativity and substance abuse?

Dr. Saintilan proposes that there is a relationship between several aspects of musicians’ experiences and a susceptibility to addiction. Much of this has to do with the ways in which stage performance affects the psyche.

Saintilan identifies a host of factors that may heighten the tendency toward substance abuse among musicians. These elements include: genetics, childhood trauma, personality traits, mental health, performance anxiety, creativity/imagination, social/workplace/cultural pressures, identity issues, public vs. private self, stardom that does not materialize, fame, and experiencing imposter syndrome.

What’s notable about the research is that there is a common theme among studies; the expectations and pressures put on musicians are immense. The more success a musician has, the more pressure is placed on them. For example, the ability to be authentic is often diminished as a stage persona is developed. This can trigger anxiety, identity issues, and feelings of being disconnected from self, in turn leading to substance abuse.

Criticism of musicians is frequently of the individual, not of their work. When an office worker is criticized, it is generally their work that is assessed, not usually their person. A musician will be personally attacked, because the public perceives little if any difference between the artist and the art. The musician is the product and must often reinvent themselves to be popular or profitable. This undermining of self creates fertile soil for addiction to develop.

Several of the stories in the book support the idea that a healthy sense of self may be undermined by the process of creating a stage persona and performing. One musician shares that initially drugs “enhanced his early love for music, expanding his consciousness and confidence . . .” During his addiction, music became “an escape to stand apart from the real world.” Time and again, musicians supplant a genuine sense of self to meet external expectations. This rending of identity can lead to increasing substance abuse.

Musicians and Addiction has one mild limitation. As an academic work, the first, research-oriented section can be a bit dry. However, the content is rich and the personal stories more than make up for the matter-of-factness of the initial section. This minor issue should not deter one from purchasing the book.

Industry professionals and clinicians who work with musicians should immediately order this book and flip to Section 3. In that section, precise guidelines are given for various ways to support musicians who are in recovery or want to be. Individual support and industry-level interventions are discussed. Perhaps most important, information is given on how to help touring musicians who may not be able to go to residential addiction treatment.

Additionally, the appendices of the book provide resources for musicians in need of help. Though the book originates in Australia, resources for musicians in the UK and USA are provided.

Musicians and Addiction: Research and Recovery Stories is an excellent resource. Electronic versions are available outside Australia and supplemental resources can be found on the companion Web site. Get this book if you’re in the industry. With better understanding, we may be able to help more of our musicians heal.