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The musical mental health malady: How Jesy Nelson leaving Little Mix signals a need for change

On the 14th of December 2020, Jesy Nelson announced her departure from Little Mix, one of the best-selling girl groups of all time with 4 singles topping the UK charts to date.

On Instagram, she informed fans of her mental health concerns, and that she found the “constant pressure…very hard.”

Nelson does not need to explain her struggles. It is a year when, due to shows and concerts being cancelled in light of the coronavirus pandemic, music creators will lose two-thirds of their income according to a report by UK Music. 

But perhaps Nelson’s grievances go beyond Covid-19. By making it to the big stages Little Mix have faced increasingly tough challenges. Performance stress may be one, according to Aaron Williamon, Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, London. “It’s not a natural thing to do…dealing with such high levels of stress in public,” he emphasises. 

However for Nelson, the problem is specific, and it is one that may be instantly relatable to many of us. In the documentary Odd One Out (2019), she opens up about being bullied online for her weight and appearance, and her battles with depression and disordered eating. She calls herself a “fat ugly rat” in such a matter-of-fact tone, one wonders how severe the abuse that she must have faced was, to lead her to internalise such a horrible belief.

Nelson is not alone in facing this – 90% of Americans surveyed by FitRated admitted to having been body-shamed, women a little more so than men. Taylor Swift, who is no stranger to vicious public scrutiny, condemned unrealistic beauty standards in the music industry. “It’s… fucking impossible,” she spits, in a clip from her documentary Miss Americana (2020).

Part of this victimisation may be a side-effect of the fact that female artists face different marketing standards – both in terms of process and image. Ariana Grande observed this in her cover story on Billboard for ‘thank u, next’. “I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t,” she said, citing the convoluted pre-release process. Aside from this, images of female artists tend to be carefully curated to match a novel concept – like Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce alter-ego was. Together, these mechanical standards can create a sense of artificiality. The public forgets that behind the glamour there is a real person, with the same insecurities as any one of them. Perhaps this is why they can be so casually cruel.

Could artists like Nelson take action against cyberbullying? No direct law against it exists in the UK, but victims can bring charges under other laws including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. However, along with the difficulty in proving that online abuse reaches a criminal standard, the internet gives perpetrators anonymity and safety in numbers. For Nelson, an artist in the global spotlight, tracking down the multitudes of online bullies is impossible.

What about regulating commentary? The truth is, attempts to ban hate comments altogether can only go so far. Social media networks like Instagram are based in the US, and face pressure to uphold free speech – thus carefully avoiding over-censorship of even harmful comments. Currently, certain algorithms detect and block abusive language and their users. However, they were not designed to effectively protect celebrities with high volumes of interaction. Just as with legal action, platform-level protective action is hard to take when there is too much abuse to target singly. And even when users report abuse, site operators still can choose not to act on the report. 

Refining anti-abuse action on social media is just the beginning. There is a wider concern that making general mental health support available for artists faces a more deeply rooted barrier. Author Adrienne Sussman notes the endurance of the “tortured artist” stereotype in Western legend – a perception that may encourage romanticisation, not remedy, of mental illness. 

But with growing research into musicians’ mental health, including a study by Help Musicians UK, people have been taking note of the problem. Organisations like MusiCare link musicians to various hotlines, counselling services, and other resources. As always, sometimes an artist’s best support comes from their fans. Even in her farewell statement, Nelson gushes to fans with obvious warmth – “I can’t thank you all enough… for making me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”

Jesy Nelson’s decision to leave Little Mix is everything but giving up. It is a woman reclaiming herself. It is a step towards normalising decisive action by artists to protect their mental health. It is a call for awareness of cyberbullying and the mental health crisis in the music industry. Though it may be the ending of a chapter, it is, as she herself says, also the beginning of a new one.

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