Frank Turner on music, social media, and the persistent mental health crisis

The pressures musicians face all too often result in tragic consequences. Frank Turner explains how therapy has helped him through hard times, and about how we need to be more sensitive to mental health problems within the industry

In my previous article for The Big Issue about my friend Josh Burdette’s suicide, I talked about trying to end the isolation and the shame and the stigma against discussing issues of mental health. The first step is having a conversation – it could be with your friend, it could be with somebody like the Samaritans helpline, there are different approaches.

But that’s a first step, it’s not a complete solution. I’m not going to claim holistic expertise of the mental health system, and there are certainly flaws and shortcomings and lack of funding to be discussed elsewhere. But my personal experience is that I got involved in CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I found the idea of going to therapy very challenging, partly because I was raised in quite an uptight, small ‘c’ conservative family, and partly because having gotten out of that, I started listening to Henry Rollins and Black Flag and hardcore punk. So I was quite cynical of the idea. But I was introduced to CBT by my partner who was very enthusiastic.

People are going to have crises. People are going to have moments of extreme difficulty.

It’s about practical decision making. What are the decisions you’re making that are bad? What are the things you’re doing that you wish you didn’t do, how are you reaching those decisions? What are your triggers? What can you do to rearrange your behavioural patterns or pathways? It was very quickly very effective for me, in terms of building an architecture for dealing with moments of crisis. To the extent that depression is chemical, it’s going to happen. People are going to have crises. People are going to have moments of extreme difficulty. The trick is to try and build an architecture of shock absorbers that can deal with that, and make sure that those moments of crisis don’t turn into anything worse.

It’s not a fix all solution, but I feel like in my experience the crisis moments are defined by feeling like there’s no way out – there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no respite from what’s currently being experienced. For me CBT gives you the chance to step outside of that, and see it as the other side of the ditch, rather than an inescapable crisis. It’s important for me to phrase that it is working rather than has worked, because it’s an ongoing processes. I check I with my therapist every now and then and every couple of months we’ll meet up and have a conversation, and if I’m in a place where I have more to talk about we’ll book some sessions in.

There are plenty of different approaches. Each person is different and hopefully everyone can find a different combination of approaches that can work for them. For a lot of people it can be stuff like exercise. In fact I have to say that I’ve started doing a lot more physical exercise in the last year or so and I think that I helping as well. For instance I’ve started running – slowly and with a lot of sweating and swearing.

Dealing with mental health issues is as much an art as it is a science, at this point in our medical history. I was quite lucky that the first serious thing that I reached out for made a really big difference. I didn’t go through a trial and error process – other than self-medication, alcohol and drugs, which was just a terrible fucking idea. But I know a lot of people who will get to the point of reaching out for one serious therapy solution, and if that one doesn’t work they go ‘well, fuck it, I’m clearly beyond help’. I think it’s important to try and discourage that approach – it might be that you don’t find the right thing for a while.

I have spent 20 years of my life working in an environment where alcohol is considerably more available than food, or shelter

It’s important that I don’t at any point in this conversation complain about what I do for a living, because I love what I do, and nobody makes me do it. Nevertheless, as a musician, you get drawn towards expressing yourself creatively, and then you get drawn towards the idea that you can make a living from it, which is very attractive and exciting. But what a lot of people don’t realise until they’re quite far into it is how stressful it is and how much pressure there can be, on lots of different levels. The highs and lows, bad sleep patterns, bad diet, the hurry up and wait aspect of the music industry.

Broadly, I have spent 20 years of my life working in an environment where alcohol is considerably more available than food, or shelter. And that’s to say nothing of what’s available in terms of more illegal things if you’re looking for that. Also there is, unless you’re quite sort of emotionally robust and mature when you start, a lot of physical and romantic temptation on the road – essentially the opportunity to form some really quite bizarre human relationships. Which is not particularly helpful in terms of having a holistic and healthy mind.

Coming to the music industry as a younger person in my early twenties, there was an absolute dearth of any kind of adult figure. There was nobody who was older who could tell us how it was going to be. It just felt like a whole bunch of kids, including the crew, including the other bands who we were touring with – everybody thrown in at the deep end and being like ‘yeah, let’s go on tour for four months!’ Nobody had any idea what we were doing. I think that it would have been very helpful to me to account to somebody who was a bit older and more experienced who could say ‘okay, calm down, it can’t be a stag do forever.’

In the position that I’m in now – and I’m not trying to claim elder statesman status – but at 36 I am beyond the upper edge of the traditional demographic for most touring musicians, and I do on the occasion that I encounter younger bands try to impart some of those ideas. It’s okay to look after yourself, it’s okay to go to bed without getting wasted. It’s okay to try and find something better to eat. Obviously the elements of carelessness and excitement is what people are attracted to – it was certainly what I was attracted to and indeed still am attracted to. At the same time, I’ve seen quite a lot of people come out of a decade on tour as pretty damaged people, and I’m not sure that they have to be.

I have a degree of a platform in life, and I can be of some positive use in the world by talking about mental health openly. But if you admit to yourself and to your nearest and dearest that you do have mental health issues that could be addressed more professionally, you don’t have to put it on a T-shirt and walk down the street wearing it. I think we should deal with mental health problems in the same way that we deal with physical health problems. If your back goes out you go and see a doctor. But your aim in getting it looked at is continuing your life in a normal way afterwards, and I think we should feel the same way about mental health.

I think that we are undergoing, collectively and as a society, a reevaluation of the importance of mental health. I don’t know that I’m really qualified to get into a conversation about the causes of what’s going on at the moment, though my immediate suspicion is social media – which I think just intensifies most of the problems that it touches. But I am optimistic. I certainly think that the way that people talk about mental health now is in a much healthier place than it was 10 years ago or 20 year ago. I feel like we’re much better at this now that we have been in my lifetime. And that can only be a positive thing. It’s better than the alternative.

Frank Turner’s new album Be More Kind is out now on Polydor Records

 As told to Malcolm Jack