As Lockdowns Lift, Canadian Musicians Need Mental Health Support More Than Ever

Basement Revolver, Bad Waitress, Maylee Todd and more weigh in on the financial and psychological struggles of the past two years

Photo: Stephanie Montani

BY Alisha MughalPublished Mar 15, 2022

Prior to the pandemic, the lack of mental health support for musicians was already a hot-button issue. Now, after two years of lockdowns and reopenings, those concerns have only intensified.

"I think a lot of creativity comes from rest," says Chrisy Hurn-Morrison of Hamilton-based shoegaze band Basement Revolver. "But it's really hard to feel rested — even though there's not much to do right now — because we're going through a trauma. All of us are going through a pretty major trauma, and while writing can be super helpful for processing things, I don't know that we're in the place where it's time to process yet."

The singer-guitarist was left to fend for herself during pandemic lockdowns, and the resulting depressive episodes negatively affected her creativity and artistic productivity.

Many Canadians have suffered as the pandemic razed social connection. In November 2021, market-research company Leger found that one in five respondents described their mental health as bad, with half of all respondents noting worry about their ability to access care [via CTV]. Musicians are particularly vulnerable, given the precariousness of their income. 

With the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) having ended in late 2020, no formal governmental assistance in place for artists struggling to maintain a semblance of mental health, and an inability for many to apply for Employment Insurance or other recovery benefits, many musicians have been left on their own.

Hurn-Morrison says the pandemic brought on a state of staid helplessness that exacerbated underlying issues. By focusing on things within her control, she has been working to regain strength. "My New Year's resolutions are basically to be in a routine again," she says. "So I've scheduled out my days and my meals, and scheduled out self-care things. I'm hoping that that helps me to have more energy to be creative."
She continues, "Not being able to play shows has made me feel purposeless, like I have no direction. Being on tour and playing shows is what brings me the most joy in life, and it's something I've been working towards for so long. So having that taken away and out of my control really made me feel out of control. [It] brought up depression, and brought up anxiety, and brought up eating disorder-related things. Not that they weren't there before, but I think [the pandemic] made them more evident."
For Basement Revolver, the onset of the pandemic meant a canceled tour and the postponement of booked studio time. "It was feeling like we were just about to get going on a lot of our goals and then the pandemic hit," Hurn-Morrison says.
It was no less tough on a personal level. "Personally, mental health-wise, the pandemic has been shit," she says. "I was diagnosed with an eating disorder last April. And right before the pandemic, I was diagnosed with anxiety and social anxiety and depression. So we got a nice little cocktail of mental health things."
As challenging as that was, the pandemic allowed Hurn-Morrison more time to focus on self-care. "I've had a lot of time to heal, which has been kind of great," she says. "There's a place in Hamilton and across Canada called Body Brave and they are incredible. They're free and you can do all of it online." 
Hurn-Morrison says Body Brave offers access to a doctor, and they assign clients a psychotherapist. She explains, "Based on their check-ins with you, you get recommended to different programs and they give you tools that you need. The different programs are like little group therapy classes, or they have drop-in [sessions]. It's all over Zoom, which sucks, but it has been incredibly important and good for me to be able to talk about the experience of eating disorders with other people going through it at the same time."
She adds, "I've been struggling with this since I was a kid, but I never had a name for it until [now], or I never let anyone know about it or see it until the pandemic."
When pandemic restrictions eased up in mid-2021, Basement Revolver were able to head back into the studio. Their resulting album, Embody, speaks to much of what Hurn-Morrison has reckoned with over the past couple of years. 

Notably, the album's first track "Skin" explores the cerebral messiness of an eating disorder — that contradictory desire to be amorphous and airborne, away from the body, but also within oneself, commingled with one's experiences, one's happiness, to the extent that one forgets one's skin and bones. Hurn-Morrison's lyrics have always poignantly communicated the complementary, contradictory nature of sad thoughts (see 2019 EP Wax and Digital's "Romantic at Heart"), how a positive desire always begs for its antithesis. On Embody, this knowledge glimmers through nearly every track, evidence of Hurn-Morrison's hard-earned psychological work and continued growth. 

"Forgot to take my meds again, even though it never happens," opens "Circles," a delicate-as-gossamer ode to a determined but fragile desire to be okay, attendant to which is the heartbreaking realization that, despite all the work one does on oneself, it's tough to ever be absolutely cured. "Thought I was past this, but it keeps on coming back," Hurn-Morrison's balmy voice laments. "Another panic attack."  
She remembers, "As soon as we were done [recording], everything got locked down again." These restrictions are once again being lifted — once again highlighting the instability of life as a musician, and the government has failed to provide consistent help with finances or mental health.

"When you're a musician, you always have to have your Joe jobs," Bad Waitress guitarist Katelyn Molgard says. They describe receiving meaningful financial support from the band's label Royal Mountain Records' mental health fund (which gives signed artists access to $1,500 annually to confidentially put toward mental wellness services) not only as a genuinely salutary occurrence, but also as an extremely validating experience.

They say, "I've been a bartender, but with bartending, you never get your benefits, right? We [musicians] are just always ushered under the poverty line, realistically."

Jesse Northey, executive director and artist manager at Victory Pool, is particularly aware of the struggles that musicians face. He notes that, due to the nature of his work — asking whether an artist has any money left in their bank account to fund a trip, for example —  he often builds intensely personal relationships with the artists he manages, which makes the artists feel they can be vulnerable with him in a way they can't be with others. Sometimes, these relationships develop unique contours, requiring skills that might not show up on an artist manager's job description.
"​​A lot of the time, I'm the person who's talking to people about some of the hard things that are going on in their lives," Northey says. "If someone's going through a hard time, they might call me, because we work together so closely on so many other things that we kind of have a bond." If an artist is feeling the brunt of mental illness — stress and anxiety relating, for example, to finances — then Northey often provides a listening ear.

"The financial pressures that a lot of artists face are very high," Northey says. "The money doesn't always show up when it's supposed to. Even when things are going well with grants, sometimes the money takes months and months to show up, [or] a cheque gets sent to the wrong address. There's real tension and real stress around a lot of these things."
Yet another wave of tour cancellations due to the Omicron variant hurt artists who were already in financially precarious situations, Northey says. 
"It can be quite an intense load for them and also for the manager too, who's kind of talking people through these things," he says, going on to express appreciation for Royal Mountain's mental health fund. 
"For a lot of the bands that I work with, and myself, too, if I had even a couple of therapy sessions covered here and there, it would really make a big difference on [our] mental health," he acknowledges.
Though he is happy to talk with his artists and has the space many days to be an active listener, he says that "it can be overwhelming" to provide psychological support to artists: "I think that there's just a reality that we all need a little more support, and there's not a lot of great mental health support out there in general."
Later in our conversation, Northey pauses. "You know what, I think there's resources actually, through — and this is maybe something that I need to just look into more — the Unison Benevolent Fund."
The Unison Fund (formerly Unison Benevolent Fund) is a Toronto-based non-profit serving Canada's music industry, including producers, engineers, singers and songwriters, production crew members, and even tour bus drivers. The fund provides support in two forms: counselling and health solutions, and financial assistance. It's free to access any of Unison's programs, but, according to Executive Director Amanda Power, "We are still struggling to have people know that we exist and we're there to help them."

Unison reported a 208 percent increase in crisis intervention cases since March 2020, and a 142 percent increase in general counselling cases. The fund saw a 3,021 percent increase in applications for its emergency financial assistance arm in 2020, and dispersed more than $3.5 million through financial assistance. From 2020 to the end of 2021, the fund helped more than 3,500 Canadians. 

For many, the ability to talk to others within their community has lessened the weight of social isolation, and has fostered meaningful conversations about available resources. But what happens when you don't feel you have community, when you don't have the kinds of conversations that Northey is able to have with his artists, or the kind of label help that Molgard has?
Not every artist can be signed to Royal Mountain Records, and Unison still just exists as a non-profit, lacking the ubiquity of a government-run program's marketing department. 
When artists are on their own, especially those just in the beginnings of their careers, the pandemic's loneliness can be especially profound, especially when mental illness comes into play.
Toronto-based multidisciplinary musician Maylee Todd is keenly aware of how pervasive mental health struggles can be. "I like to believe that I have a lot of control over my own thoughts. But that's just bullshit. You have intrusive thoughts that are just jamming and coming at you left, right and centre, all the time," she says. "During the pandemic, a lot of that was happening for me. I was being swept away by my mind constantly more than I've ever been before."
Todd says because she has experience with therapy (which she calls a spa of the mind), she was able to interrogate herself in a way that helped to stop unhygienic mental habits. "I do think that, if I can catch those moments of rumination, at least I can choose: is this something that I really like? Do I have the answer for this? Is this really sustainable right now? Am I just feeding a bad habit? So I started noticing during the pandemic that I had a lot of bad habits, which I was feeding for many years, and I let those dramas sort of get the best of me."
For artists who might not have access to therapy, or a label or a manager, Todd has some actionable advice: learn how to write grants, practice bravery in being yourself, and most importantly, explore mental health on a scientific, psychological level.
"Understanding how the brain works might relieve you of a lot of expectations of how you think you're supposed to be living life," she says. "It may just demystify some things."

When I ask Molgard for advice they would give to artists who don't have the label support that Bad Waitress has, they say, "Oh no."
They add, "Honestly, the only thing that comes to mind at the moment is to seek the network of artists in our community who are all on different, varying levels." It's easy to get confused by the offerings of the internet, they note, and it's difficult to make use of a particular resource if one knows nothing about it going in; sometimes it's easiest to gauge the structural offerings based on colleagues' experiences. 
"We are all creative, artistic, temperament-type people who more or less have that nervous energy in us," Molgard says. "And some people are better at seeking help than others. So just ask them. Going on the internet and trying to find things out, you get bogged down in crap. So I think it's easier just to communicate with the people around you and try to see what their experiences are, what their resources are. Because no one really understands our journey with mental health the same way that we all understand it. … No one fights for us like we do."

Ultimately, although individuals can take steps to empower themselves and those around them, systemic change is required.

"The government does provide grants for making music and making projects happen, and they provide free healthcare, but why isn't there anything for mental health?" Hurn-Morrison asks. "It'd be cool to see some sort of structural thing in place."

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