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Mental Health On Tour: As Live Events Resume, Some Artists Fear Return of ‘Old Habits’

For John Osborne of Brothers Osborne, the stressful past 14 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic have actually improved his mental health.

“The time off was something I really needed, in the 20 years I had been going nonstop,” says the country duo’s singer-guitarist. “I’ve always been a workaholic and I’ve never known how to stop. Quarantine basically gave me no choice. That’s what I needed — something to put me on a couch and teach me how to sit down and do nothing.”

Now the issue for Osborne, 39, is the return of touring. Like many musicians who’ve struggled with anxiety, depression and other mental-health issues, Osborne fears falling back into a road routine of working non-stop. “I want to psychologically prepare myself for those moments,” he says from his Nashville home. “It’s easy to fall back into old habits and old patterns.”

In March 2020, artists endured their nightmare scenario of abruptly canceling all tour dates. For many, the transition from road to home was destabilizing: Last April, Hayley Williams of Paramore told the Los Angeles Times she was struggling to stop her mind from racing: “If I wake up and I don’t put music on, which I didn’t do today, I can feel the emptiness.”

But many artists also paused a transient lifestyle that centered on poor eating and sleeping routines, the constant stimulation of adoring fans and meeting new people and easy access to drugs and alcohol. And a strange thing happened during the pandemic: They used the time to build healthy habits. As vaccinations kick in, and the concert industry slowly returns to normal over the next year or so, artists wonder how they’ll maintain these habits on the road.

Country star Hunter Hayes, who has been public about “anxiety issues with being on stage,” had put off intensive therapy for years while on tour, fearing too many days off would be devastating for his working band and staff. In the last year, though, he had time for regular sessions. “I was able to jump in and really do some work,” he says. Although he’s ready to return to the road, he worries about keeping his mental-health momentum: “There is that danger of being overstimulated again, and having that be the thing that feeds me and fuels me.”

The pandemic, adds Linnea Siggelkow, the Canadian pop singer-songwriter known as Ellis, who has been diagnosed with depression, general anxiety disorder and other issues, has also given her the luxury of therapy, as well as “this really tight-knit support system I’ve been leaning on.” She worries about how to maintain her new quarantine habits while touring again: “I don’t know how it will work with finding the space and privacy on the road to do an hour of therapy on your computer when you’re in the van all day.”

Musicians with anxiety and depression will have to be vigilant about maintaining their routines, says Susan Borja, a researcher in the National Institute of Mental Health’s traumatic stress program, including exercise, maintaining contact with therapists, friends and family and using pandemic-era innovations like Zoom for virtual connection. “For artists who adopted healthy habits in the pandemic, there is a risk of losing those,” she says. “We want to make sure people are maintaining as many of those habits as they can while they’re entering a normal life.”

Borja compares artists on the brink of touring to teachers returning to the classroom who fear “relearning some of these skills we’ve had for a long time.” She adds, “Being patient, being forgiving with yourself, while you pick them up and get back to what you know, is going to be important.”

The anxiety of returning to the road can seem overwhelming. Frank Turner, the British punk-rock singer-songwriter who has dealt with depression and drug use, fears the health implications of returning to packed indoor concert halls with crowds breathing all over each other.

“We’ve been told to spend the last year staying away from other people — it’s made a lot more people more conscious of microbes and particles,” he says. “It makes me nervous in many ways.”

Adds Brett Newski, a Milwaukee singer-songwriter who just put out a cartoon book, It’s Hard to be a Person, containing lighthearted tips about overcoming anxiety and depression: “I actually do fear going back to the road.”

The last 14 months — during which Newski took up meditation — have been “the most routine probably any musician has ever had,” he says. “I do worry: ‘Am I going to forget all that information? Am I going to get caught up and jump on the hamster wheel again and book up everything and have a hectic brain?’”

On the other hand, returning to the road is an inherently healthy idea for most musicians, even those with anxiety and depression. They’ll be able to generate crucial income again, relieving pressure, and they’ll regularly interact with people and do what they love every night. Ashe, a singer-songwriter who just put out her album Ashlyn, has anxiety around not wanting to “disappoint people” who are perhaps seeing their first concerts in 14 months, but the end of the pandemic represents “so much more joy than there is anxiety.”

Early in the pandemic, Anna Clendening, the singer who became a pop star through Vine and America’s Got Talent, spent months ending a relationship with an addict and wound up struggling to the point of trying to check herself into a hospital psych ward. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, she has since undergone intensive therapy, three hours via Zoom for four days every week, and feels more equipped to maintain her equilibrium on the road so she doesn’t have to endure the mood swings of “that super-high and super-low.”

“I’ll still have some anxiety,” she says. “But now I can take care of myself and compartmentalize and balance everything out. It sounds f***ed up, but the pandemic really helped.”

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