The sudden and tragic death of the pop icon Prince has left many of us reeling; not just at the idea of a world stripped of his flamboyant talent but the fact that such a beloved artist--and one constantly surrounded by fans, fellow artists and staff-- died from an accidental opioid overdose that by most counts seems to have been fully preventable. Also, unsettling is that he died without a will leading to a slew of dignity stealing headlines about potential love children claiming to be heirs to his fortune.

Yet as we all know, this is not a new story. After all, the motto “live fast and die young” was essentially created by the rock-and-roll world, a world in which an untimely death is often the crowning “act” of its most elite players. Think “27 Club” members Janis Joplin (27), Jim Morrison (27) and Jimmi Hendrix (27), Elvis Presley (42), Michael Jackson (51)...The list goes on, and (more troublingly) will certainly continue growing--for at least as long as rock remains equated with sex and drugs in the popular mind and culture.

From some perspectives, the idea of rethinking of this glamorous formula is like rethinking E’s relation to MC-squared in Einstein’s relativity theory. In truth, though, many creative lives might be saved--or at least improved--if the industry as a whole takes a few simple steps.

  1. Stop Glamorizing Addiction. Until substance addiction in the music world is seen for what it is--not a glamorous lifestyle “choice” but a disease--it will remain a top killer of our artistic and musical talent. The truth is, this “it’s just part of the lifestyle” attitude prevents many artists from getting the help they need before it becomes too late. Prince’s death might well be another example of this oversight; a doctor had been called in, but arrived perhaps only one day too late to save him. Why did it take so long?
  2. Addiction First-Aid Training. Inevitably, many musicians and band members find themselves sitting by helplessly as their band mates fall into alcoholism or drug abuse. Speaking of Elvis Presley’s last performances, Presley guitarist John Wilkinson recalled: "He was all gut. He was slurring. He was so fucked up. ... It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible. ... I remember crying.”

    Industry organizations could help in situations like this one by providing lists of treatment centers and approaches to band members and staff, either via outreach or at performance venues. More importantly, they could provide guidance on having direct conversations with friends that are in keeping with today’s more modern approaches to substance abuse in addition to more old-school “12-step” style methods, which many find distasteful because of the forced spiritual component and the requirement that they attend public meetings.

    Research has found treatment approaches like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral treatments are equally effective and more straightforward. These approaches can be used in addition to 12-step programs they all can be integrated into one treatment plan.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that long term rehabs are not often the first line treatment--and in fact, sometimes the term “substance abuse” itself has to be used with caution, particularly when the artist in question denies his or her addiction. One trick in these situations is to refer someone with a substance abuse problem to an ADHD coach, as many musicians have symptoms overlapping with ADHD (see ADHD and The Rock Star Gene). This would be a way to get a person in some sort of treatment, which can lead to the recognition that substance use, abuse or addiction is an obstacle to achieving their goals.(See ADHD and Addictions)  In other words, a goal should be to get a person into any sort of treatment if they are unwilling to admit that substance use is a problem. This may mean recommending they go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon if they have a child or spouse who has a drug or alcohol problem. It may include recommending they go to Sex Anonymous, Overeating Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous if they are more willing to admit these problems than drugs or alcohol. In this way they are immersed in treatment which may increase the likelihood of acknowledging possibly more life-threatening problems with drugs or alcohol.

  3. Straight Talk About Sexual Risks. Sex, the third pillar of the rock-and-roll triad, is widely seen as one of its biggest “perks,” glamorized in music videos, album covers and even on stage at award shows (think Miley Cyrus and her famous twerk episode). While such depictions can be titillating, they also obscure the very real risk to artists of potentially exploitative relationships. The truth is, as “sexy” as a string of bedmates might seem, having a stable relationship when one is in a very unstable line of work can be a massive help--particularly for those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction issues.

It is easy to think of David Bowie’s long term marriage to Iman as one cause of his successful recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Finding one person who truly cares about the musician and their physical/mental health can be a big step in the direction of getting clean, while a string of beautiful, disposable young women (or women) will most likely not.

These risks also include transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. A simple step toward minimizing these risks could be glamorizing a new health-conscious culture of having crucial conversations about STD’s and protection from them. Increasingly STD’s are being linked with higher risks of cancers and have always been known to pose risks to long term health and fertility. One can imagine a public outreach effort with rock stars recording a “Let’s talk about STD’s” video thereby glamorizing protection and care for one’s health and well-being. The tone rather than being the buzzkill who calls the police to end the party, would be more like a voice saying “Hey, let’s take better care of each other.”

4.  Aggressive Outreach to Artists. Two methods for changing both the culture and the access to treatment and other services such as legacy planning include 1) using technology and media (such as news and magazine articles, podcasts, blogs, Facebook groups, social media) to raise awareness 2) direct messaging to managers with a specific model for compassionate assertiveness. In addition to existing administrative groups such as Musicares, crucial professionals such as, lawyers, financial planners, and psychologists can partner with managers and clergy (when desired) to promote an extended family of social, emotional, physical, cognitive, financial, and spiritual support and expert guidance to artists/musicians. Psychologist Robin Rosenberg, Ph.D. recommends establishing scheduled yearly meetings around legacy planning issues:

“framing the discussion is the idea that their wills, health proxies, advanced directives, etc. are reviewed annually--which makes creating them feel like a less “traumatic” event. In that context, the initial consulting sessions are discussions about legacy and the creation of the legal documents; these legacy decisions should be reviewed annually, and thus the process is like coaching sessions, which help the client articulate what are his/her trusted relationships, legacy goals, a life (not) worth living (e.g., when to have a DNR order), and all the other issues that go into, and are really the first steps, of creating and revising such legal documents.”

Creating a culture where a regular “check-up” on these issues and mental health review is as common though equally as dreaded as a dentist appointment would go a long way toward saving lives and increasing health and dignity.

5. Get the Message to the Players. Professionals in many industries are regularly bombarded by promotional material from the organizations they belong to about the importance of getting professional wills and personal wills. Ironically, in the music business--a place where assets can be complicated and arguments rife--this isn’t always the case, as demonstrated by the fact that Prince left no will behind after his death. Creating a direct outreach to musicians on these estate-planning issues could help to rectify this problem. The professional organizations of the music industry (MusiCares, the Grammy Foundation, and others) should consider getting more involved with the distribution of this type of information.

Lisa Claus LPC and owner of LC Media adds that

"Although substance abuse, mental health, and overall artist well-being is touched upon in music business programs, it is likely that they would benefit from deeper ongoing discussion, possibly through role-plays and ‘What would you do if...’ scenarios."

These crucial conversations are never easy and practice talking through the resistance may be necessary to increase their likelihood of success.

Dr. Lara Honos-Webb is a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of The Gift of ADHD, The Gift of ADHD Activity Book, The Gift of Adult ADD, The ADHD Workbook for Teens and Listening to Depression.

Check out www.addisagift.com

About the Author

Dr. Lara Honos-Webb

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of multiple books.

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