Addressing the Challenge of Mental Wellbeing in Music

Christmas is fast approaching. It’s a time associated with happiness and music, lights, gifts and laughter. But Christmas can be a dark time for some, particularly those struggling with mental health issues.

Having been around musicians all my life, I have come across many who have suffered from mental health issues, from mild depression and anxiety to those suffering from bipolar disorder. I am glad that the Industry is now starting to acknowledge the challenge of mental health difficulties and looking to support those who need help. Identifying those who need help is key to ensuring people get the support they need. For some mental health issues start early, and schools and youth groups are not always able to support those who need help, talking about these challenges can ensure that people get the support they need.

Maria Thomas, The Music Workshop Company

The music industry has been determinedly addressing issues of wellbeing in performers in recent years. Players suffering physical issues such as RSI brought on by overuse, stress or postural issues have been able to find much needed support. There is considerable effort to educate musicians in a holistic way, acknowledging the importance of looking after the body. The stigma around illness and injury in a competitive profession has lessened.

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Now the focus has turned to mental health, an issue that is particularly pertinent for many during the Christmas period. In May 2016, Help Musicians UK ran a survey of over 2200 performers. The survey discovered that 70% of musicians have experienced anxiety and panic attacks. It was also found that music-industry professionals can be up to three times more likely to suffer depression than those in other career fields.

These issues are prevalent throughout music, both in classical orchestras and touring rock bands. The highs of performance can make every-day life seem mundane, touring tests relationships, standards are high and perfectionism is rife. Aspects of the industry are glamorised by alcohol and drugs, and social drinking can easily mask destructive alcoholism. Performance anxiety and pressure to deliver at a high level can lead to excessive drinking, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive behaviour and depression. The fact that self-image has little to do with talent becomes obvious when watching TV spectacles such as the X-Factor auditions. Some of the most talented musicians have huge levels of self-doubt. Studies have also shown that incidences of bipolar disorder are possibly linked with high childhood IQ and creativity.

The problem with mental health issues as opposed to physical illness is that they are often invisible and therefore unnerving to those who have no experience of them. A broken leg is more easily understood. There is a level of shame associated with mental illness – sufferers can feel they have an intrinsic weakness and fear that their careers will suffer if they reach for help.

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Luckily, attitudes are changing. More than 20 years after the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain who was thought to have bipolar disorder, bipolar and depression are much more openly discussed in the media after celebrities such as Stephen Fry ‘came out’ as sufferers. As a result, musicians are beginning to speak up. Composer Nico Muhly, blogging for American music site Noted Endeavours, called for a destigmatisation of mental illness and depression among musicians.

And in May 2016, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, the Santiago Quartet completed a fundraising campaign to record an album in aid of Mind, the mental health charity, motivated by ‘cellist Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s recovery from bipolar.

The pressures of life and juggling career, parenthood and personal issues led to a vicious return of bipolar-based mania about 3 years ago,” says Jonathan. “Music, helping others and the Santiago Quartet have been instrumental in aiding my recovery from my third, and hopefully final, hospitalisation. I also find it crucial to avoid drinking any alcohol whatsoever so my medication works.

The industry is rallying to offer support for musicians, delivering the message that mental wellbeing is as relevant as physical health, and that it is important to seek professional help. Professional bodies including the Musicians’ Union offer useful advice and information, and following its survey, Help Musicians hope to have a service dedicated to musicians’ mental health in place by 2017. Online resources make it possible for everyone working in the industry, whether as a performer or in management, to understand more about these issues. The statistics shown in the Help Musicians’ survey indicate that even those lucky enough to avoid mental health issues will find themselves working with or employing someone who has experienced these problems.

If you, a family member, friend or fellow musician could use some advice about mental health issues, the list of links below contains a wide range of information and support for illnesses from addiction and anxiety to eating disorders and more. Please share this list with your students and colleagues.

The Music Workshop Company would like to wish you a happy and healthy Christmas!

Help Musicians: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/get-advice/health-wellbeing/mental-health/mental-health

Musicians’ Union: http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/Advice/Your-Career/Health-and-Safety/Wellbeing

British Association of Performing Arts Medicine: http://bapam.org.uk/news/tag/mental-health/

ArtsMinds: http://www.artsminds.co.uk

Mind, the Mental Health Charity: http://www.mind.org.uk

Alcoholics Anonymous: http://alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

Al Anon (for relatives and friends of alcoholics): http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk

Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s blog on HuffPost: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jonathan-hennesseybrown/my-journey-through-bipolar_b_9872792.html

 

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