Tonic, the mental health charity championed by the late Specials frontman Terry Hall, have spoken to NME about the vital services they provide for people working in the music industry.
Through a variety of programmes, activities and schemes provided by trained experts and music industry peers, Tonic’s mission is to “promote good mental health through music”, having “helped many isolated and vulnerable people in our community”.
A vocal supporter and founding patron of the charity was Terry Hall, who passed away back in December. Speaking to NME, Tonic’s CEO Steph Langan explained what it meant to have Hall has a champion “from the very beginning”, especially as an artist who often spoke out about his own struggles.
“At that first meeting with Terry 10 years ago, he had just started therapy, was on medication and was coping really well in a really good place,” said Langan. “At that point, he found communication to be a really important thing.
“He wanted to encourage and advocate for others to communicate as well. That became a big part of his involvement with Tonic – to be that face and that presence to make it OK for other people to open up. Over the years, he himself opened up even more about his experiences.”
Speaking of how active Hall would be as a patron, she continued: “Terry invited us to all of The Specials’ tours and allowed us a platform with a Tonic stand to have conversations with the audience and fans. That allowed other people to open up to us about their stories; often for the first time.
“Terry being a figurehead and giving us that platform to allow others to open up has been a really vital thing. He said himself that he walked around in a bubble for over 40 years before he saw a therapist who said, ‘It’s OK, you’ve got a mental illness and we can help you’. What we’re trying to do is to prevent people from living with that distress. We’re here to be preventative and proactive with support.”
Tonic recently marked the second anniversary of its Rider programme – which aims to “provide bespoke training and support to music industry professionals, both remotely and at venues”. This includes a peer support group, mental health first aid training, workshops, courses and more.
One of the consultants and lead facilitators of the Tonic Rider programme is Adam Ficek – songwriter, solo artist as Roses Kings Castles, Babyshambles member and now also a trained psychotherapist.
“We know that musicians are susceptible to great struggles with mental health,” Ficek told NME. “The reason I started working with Tonic was the emphasis put on not only those struggles, but how music can also help.”
Speaking of the unique occupational hazard that comes with working in music, he said: “The industry itself is predominantly late nights, there’s an abundance of alcohol. There’s the social environment, then there’s the psychological environment of where people have come from with their own wounds and how that interacts with that.
“With popular musicians, they’re often exposed to the more ‘show business’ nature of music, which is sold more on the aesthetic and an ethos of how things look rather than shifting the airwaves of the things that we hear.”
He added: “It’s difficult being an artist, full stop. If you’re a creative then you need to satisfy the need to create. When you try to commodify that in an industry, that makes it even more difficult as you’re trying to generate income.”
Ficek said that the mental health strains of working in music often leads people to “forget why they got into the industry in the first place”, and said that the help provided by Tonic would help them through.
“Music is a difficult place to be because no one really takes responsibility,” he said. “It’s usually a freelance career, so is it the managers, the agents or the musicians themselves who should take responsibility?”
He continued: “We don’t just need to talk about mental health – we need to share the experiences. There’s a large presence on social media saying how talking about mental health has been de-stigmatised, but I don’t believe that’s true – I actually think it gives people the chance to escape more by putting it all out there and running away from it. There’s a huge divide between what’s going on and what’s perceived to be going on.
“There are people doing podcasts on mental health awareness. So what? Having huge key characters like Terry promoting this was important because people can see the authenticity. It’s not just a celebrity saying, ‘I feel really sad, here I am crying on Instagram’. It adds a congruence and practically framed it for what we do. All we really want to do is to get people in touch with people like me, and things like this didn’t used to exist for people like me.”
Cutting through a lot of the noise and dogma of mental health discourse, Ficek said that Tonic provides practical help and a sense of community.
“Before this peer group, no one was willing to do it,” he said. “Everyone was constantly talking about ‘mental health awareness’, but so what? It was the courage from Steph to say ‘Let’s just do it’ that brought us here. It’s been self-funded. We know there’s a need and that people are struggling, but how can we get to that community?
“Once people come, they come back again and again because of that rich depth of community and understanding that they get.”
He added: “What I do as a musician and psychologist and psychotherapist is to help people realise that things aren’t as shit as they think and that help is out there. Seek some help. The biggest struggle now is reaching out. It takes tremendous courage to reach out and say, ‘I’m in distress’. It took me a long time.”
Jeordie Shenton is the co-ordinator of Tonic Rider, and told NME of how mental health is often not prioritised as much as it should be within the music industry.
“There are a lot of campaigns around at the moment to do with streaming, saving venues, COVID, helping with Brexit and touring – they’re all about how music industry professionals are being affected by economic and political aspects – but we often forget to connect the impact of those aspects on people’s mental health,” he said.
The charity has two main programmes between Never Mind The Stigma for the general public and Tonic Rider with the aim of promoting good mental health in the music industry.
“It offers training courses, support groups, talk workshops and one-to-one sessions,” Shenton explained. “They’re all free to access and predominantly online. Adam facilitates most of our peer support groups for musicians, crew and venue staff attending six-week sessions for 90 minutes a week. You can discuss anything and have the support of like-minded peers.
“All the facilitators who provide that are mental health practitioners; so they might be psychotherapists, they might be counsellors, they might be mental health first aiders, but they’re all qualified from the music industry. It’s important that we have that expertise of the music industry experience and the qualified mental health aspect.”
Shenton said that at the core of Tonic’s work was to “support people while helping them to support themselves, their colleagues and the wider music industry”.
“It’s about equipping people with skills,” he explained. “We don’t just work with working musicians who are struggling with mental health; we also work with those who are currently in good mental health but want the skills to support others in the industry. It has a ripple effect that passes the skills on. That’s what we want: a healthier and more positive music industry.”
He continued: “We all love music and want it to be a safe space for people to work in. It would be great if one day we could pack up shop and say, ‘Everyone has great mental health’ but it’s never going to be that way. However, if we can make an impact to lessen the prevalence of anxiety, depression and serious mental health disorders then that’s why we’re here.”
While there’s still a lot to be desired from the industry at large, Shelton believed that things are improving thanks to Tonic and others with a similar mindset.
“In the music industry, we’ve had about 10 years of mental health awareness – now we’re moving into action,” he said. “Things are on offer and are accessible. We don’t just need to talk about mental health – we need to share the experiences.
“In the short time I’ve been doing mental health work and research, things have changed quite rapidly.”
For more information on Tonic, visit here.
For further help and advice on mental health:
- ‘Am I depressed?‘ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- Help Musicians UK – Around the clock mental health support and advice for musicians
- Music Support Org – Help and support for musicians struggling with alcoholism, addiction, or mental health issues
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day