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From BTS to Justin Bieber, stars are finally talking about the mental health costs of touring

Artists who open up about the challenges of life on the road help normalize mental health issues — and that’s worth the disappointment of a few canceled shows.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 7
Musical guest Justin Bieber performs on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on Feb. 14, 2020.Andrew Lipovsky / NBC

For pop music fans, 2020 is already proving to be a great year. It started with new albums from artists such as Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Kesha, Halsey, and Justin Bieber — not to mention all those hints Rihanna’s been dropping about her long-anticipated “R9” album. Yet, if you’re hoping to see some of your favorite artists live this year, you might be out of luck. In recent weeks, Gomez, Taylor Swift and others have made it clear that while they will still be touring to promote new records, they anticipate fewer concert dates than usual.

It’s potentially disappointing news for the stars' fans, certainly, but the motivations behind this shift are actually great news. For once, stars like Bieber, who literally grew up in the spotlight, are talking openly about and prioritizing their mental health.

For once, stars like Bieber, who literally grew up in the spotlight, are talking openly about and prioritizing their mental health.

In a recent Apple Music interview to promote her new album “Rare,” Gomez, a former child star — who’s previously spoken openly about having to cut tours short due to anxiety, depression, lupus and other mental and physical health issues exacerbated by the demands of live shows — explained that while she loves touring, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to do it in 2020. “I need to find ways where that’s possible for me,” she said, noting that it comes down to pacing.

Meanwhile, speaking to Variety in January, Swift revealed that a main reason she’s only doing a handful of shows in 2020 (versus the dozens she’d typically do to promote an album) is because she “wanted to be able to work as much as I can handle right now.” (Not coincidentally, Swift has also opened up recently about her mother’s cancer battle, a reminder that celebrities have families, too — and all the stress that comes along with them.)

Then there’s teen phenom Billie Eilish, who is doing a full international tour this year, but one carefully coordinated to ensure she has enough time to decompress between shows to keep her feeling healthy and relaxed; last year, she revealed to Rolling Stone that the relentless schedule of previous tours had given her nightly panic attacks. Also in 2019, the K-pop supergroup BTS announced they were taking a brief break after years of nonstop performing to “rest and recharge.”

And then there’s Bieber, whose new Youtube docuseries “Seasons” has dedicated several episodes to the 25-year-old’s mental health, which deteriorated right around the time of his 2017 Purpose World Tour and caused him to cancel several shows. Stardom can take a tough toll on anyone, but it not surprisingly has had historically terrible effects on celebrities who became famous as children — a designation true for Bieber, Gomez and Demi Lovato (who’s also been outspoken about her various mental health battles).

Bieber — who first rose to fame at the age of 13 and has weathered the highs and very lows of growing up famous in public — will soon be embarking on yet another tour, but only because, as he notes in the doc, he’s finally in “a good headspace” and is “happy about what I’m doing.” If for some reason that changes, he says he’ll put his health first and concert obligations second.

Such decisions are not made lightly. For musicians, touring is vitally important — a golden opportunity to travel the globe, connect with thousands of fans, and, most importantly, earn millions of dollars. Due to the changing way musicians make income, tours are arguably more important than ever before, which is also why they are getting bigger and more expensive. It’s rare for artists, especially one at Swift's or Bieber’s superstar level, to cut tours short or skip out on them completely. Obviously artists don’t want to disappoint fans, but they also don’t want to take the financial hit — alongside the usually hundreds of other people involved, from record executives to construction workers.

Given the stakes, when artists do cancel shows or opt not to tour they’re often accused of being selfish, entitled, uncaring, or all of the above. Even Gomez admitted in that Apple News interview that she hoped fans don’t think she’s “lazy” for keeping shows intimate if she does decide to go on tour.

Can we ever really prove that such-and-such artist has the flu or is having an off day mentally — and that’s why they’re actually canceling a show? Of course not. And part of the bargain the rich and the famous make is that they have to deal with the work of being famous, not just the perks. But from the monthslong time commitment that tours demand, taking artists away from their family and friends, to the realities of trying to perform with energy and enthusiasm each night, it makes perfect sense that touring would cause or heighten issues such as anxiety or depression.

In her new Netflix documentary "Miss Americana," Swift recalled touring while suffering from an eating disorder and feeling like she was “going to pass out at the end of a show, or in the middle of it.”

Because the stakes are so high, stars try to put their issues aside for the sake of the shows — which, inadvertently, can make their problems worse.

Ellie Goulding said in 2017 that she suffered from panic attacks as her career took off the ground. “I was scared I wasn’t as good of a singer as everyone thought I was," she said at the time. "And as the stakes grew, I was afraid of letting everyone, including myself, down.”

And yet because the stakes are so high, stars such as Bieber and Swift and Goulding try to put their issues aside for the sake of the shows — which, inadvertently, can make their problems even worse.

That’s what happened to Bieber in 2017. As explained in “Seasons,” the singer was already not in the healthiest state, mentally or physically, prior to beginning his "Purpose" tour. But pressures put on the star by his team, his fans and himself forced him to continue. This turned out to be a mistake. A few months in, with 14 shows still to go, Bieber pulled the plug — a decision that, he reveals in the doc, was due to extreme exhaustion. He’s spent the last few years slowly getting back to his regular self, treating his conditions and mostly staying away from the stage.

While it’s a shame that Bieber felt he needed to prioritize his career over his health, it’s great to see his mindset changing. Celebrity should never come at the expense of psychological health, and when it does the results have been tragic.

And the more stars who open up about the reality of touring and the effects it has on their stress levels, the better. Mental health may be a less taboo topic today than it was even a decade ago, but frank discussions about it are unfortunately still few and far between. Thankfully, some of the world’s biggest superstars are choosing to be honest about their experiences with anxiety, whether through intimate interviews and documentaries such as Bieber and Swift, or through painfully honest song lyrics like Eilish, who’s discussed feeling depressed and even suicidal in songs like “Bury a Friend” and “Everything I Wanted.” These discussions help continue the process of normalizing mental health issues, making others who might be suffering feel less alone and less afraid to reach out for help. And that’s absolutely worth the disappointment of a few canceled shows.