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Suicide attempts among Australia’s live performers rose over last two years, survey reveals

A sign thanks people for being part of live music returning during Byron Bay’s Bluesfest in April 2022.
A sign thanks people for being part of live music returning during Byron Bay’s Bluesfest in April 2022. A survey of Australians working in the live performance industry found almost two thirds reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Levels of extreme psychological distress and suicidal ideation among Australians working in live performance and music are significantly higher than the national average, a new survey of more than 1,300 respondents has found.

The survey, conducted in March and April by the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology, is a stark wake-up call, according to national charity Support Act, which commissioned the research. Support Act, which provides musicians, managers and crew with psychological and financial support in times of crisis, is set to share the report’s findings at a conference in Sydney on Wednesday.

More than half of the 1,304 respondents had experienced suicidal thoughts – over four-and-a-half times the proportion of the general population. Among those respondents, more than one in 10 had acted on them.

Almost two thirds reported high or very high levels of psychological distress – four times that found in the general population. Among vulnerable groups, the proportion of highly stressed respondents was even higher: for non-binary people it was 83%, women (72%), people under 35 (75%), people with a disability or long-term health condition (81%) and people on a very low income (81%).

More than half of those respondents admitted using drugs or alcohol to get through the past two years of the pandemic and natural disasters.

Twenty-nine percent reported currently having an anxiety condition, while 27% reported depression – rates that are more than double that seen in the general population.

The report’s researcher, Dr Aurora Elmes, said the findings were worrying.

“They show very high levels of distress in the community of people working in music and other performing arts, and that they are still feeling the impacts of Covid, the previous bushfires and, more recently the floods,” she told Guardian Australia.

“The floods in New South Wales and Queensland are still continuing to impact on people’s lives and their livelihoods in music and the performing arts.”

While the questions about suicide related to ideation and attempts at any point in the respondent’s life, among the 13.3% who had attempted suicide, one in four said the attempt had taken place in the last two years.

Elmes said Covid did seem to be a significant factor, and there appeared to be an increased incidence of suicidal behaviour since the 2016 Victoria University study Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry – Australia’s last comprehensive report into the mental health and wellbeing of performing artists.

The Swinburne survey asked people what support they wanted and the type of support that had made a difference to them.

“What we found was very similar to other research that’s been done around mental health, particularly after periods of unemployment or financial challenges,” Elmes said. “People need positive relationships with people in their lives. They need that sort of social support, but they also need practical and financial support to help people deal with the ongoing impacts of Covid-19 on their lives and livelihoods.”

Over the past two years, Support Act has disbursed more than 16,000 crisis relief grants to music and live performing arts workers from a $35m federal government fund.

‘It’s been a really tough time’

Fanny Lumsden, pictured in the Peel River during the Tamworth Country Music Festival in April.
Country musician Fanny Lumsden says of the 56 live shows she had booked between May and October 2021, 38 were cancelled. Photograph: Don Arnold/WireImage

Aria award-winning country music singer Fanny Lumsden told Guardian Australia the Support Act grant her family received was a lifeline, paying the rent and putting food on the table during lockdowns. It also helped pay for fuel when she, her husband Dan and their band were permitted to travel regionally.

While recognising the live music industry was not the only sector badly hit by the pandemic, Lumsden said she and her colleagues felt the impact brutally.

“So much [of musicians’] identity is tied up in what we do, tied up with performing, and getting that feedback from audiences,” she said. “Having the rug ripped out from underneath, it’s been a really tough time.”

In January 2020, the bushfires came perilously close to the rural property Lumsden and her husband rent in Tooma. Two months later, Lumsden released Fallow, which would go on to win an Aria award for best country album of the year.

The album’s launch day was 13 March 2020, the same day then prime minister Scott Morrison announced the states and territories would ban nonessential gatherings of more than 500 people. Six days later the states closed their borders.

“We’d been working for two years to put this album out and then it just felt like it got destroyed in that first week,” she said. “All of our shows were cancelled.”

Just how many gigs were cancelled in 2020, Lumsden lost count. In 2021, she had 56 shows booked between May and October. Thirty-eight were cancelled.

“With a toddler and a newborn on top of it all, you could say at the very least I was pretty burnt out by the end of it all,” she said.