The state of music and mind

by Rhian Jones

This feature was written for autumn 2016 edition of The Musicians’ Union magazine

The lifestyle of a working musician may not afford much time for mental healthcare but evidence suggests music-makers should exercise extra caution when it comes to matters of the mind. Late night gigs and the temptations they bring, hectic touring schedules, and the transition from stage to sofa all take a tool on the human psyche, not to mention the unique pressures of working in the creative industries.

In 2014, a survey by Help Musicians UK highlighted that of 552 respondents, 67% had, on occasion, suffered from depression or other psychological problems and 75% had experienced performance anxiety. In terms of the general British population, around in one four people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. Other stats are sparse, and that’s a gap Help Musicians is aiming to help bridge with its mental health and music academic study, Can Music Make You Sick?, which was launched at The Great Escape in May. The report will explore how the music industry can have a negative impact on the mental health of those working within it, and look into ways of solving that.

A range of mental health problems cover multiple musical disciplines. Common problems include performance anxiety and the expectation of perfectionism resulting in obsessional worries, depression due to loneliness felt while away from family and friends on tour, as well as the mental effects of succumbing to what can easily turn into a damaging lifestyle of little sleep, junk food, alcohol and drugs while traveling. And the ‘tortured artist’ cliche can prevent both sufferers and their support network from taking any complaints seriously, as could the perceived ‘glamorous’ reality of a musician. 

Musician Rob Harvey had a hard time touring while a member of his previous band, The Music, and turned to alcohol as a result. “It was after a year or two of touring that signs of anxiety started to show,” he said in a film produced by Vice and shown at The Great Escape. “Every night you’d be hitting the drink, [and looking for] girls. The attention on stage makes you feel powerful but it gives you a false sense of self.

“I could never get to the point of being comfortable in social situations, I’d only feel like everybody else at two drinks in. That’s a slippery slope because two drinks soon lead to more. I’d wake up feeling bad every day, and my only remedy was to keep drinking.”

Dr Carol Chapman, a psychology practitioner for the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, works with a lot of musicians in the classical arena – a genre where the use of Beta Blockers to enhance performance has long been documented. “The ethos of learning an instrument classically, doing grades and getting a job in an orchestra, chamber or choral group requires people to know repertoire very well, with teachers typically quick to point out mistakes and being perhaps less aware of the value of being positive and encouraging,” she says. “It results in a degree of performance anxiety and unhelpful perfectionism.” 

So what help is there available? Help Musicians can help pay for treatment and therapy and refer people to relevant expert charities, predominantly Mind. BAPAM offers free one-to-one advice and clinical service assessments through its national programme of education and training, with psychologists offering their services at a comparatively low rate. Musicians can also get funding for specialist medical help from other organisations like PRS and The Royal Society of Musicians. Elsewhere, new charity Music Support provides a 24/7 helpline manned by volunteers and professionals offering help and support for individuals in any area of the music industry suffering from alcoholism, addiction, emotional or mental health issues.

BAPAM Chief Executive Deborah Charnock recently called for a creators’ health service, to provide more performers with career-specific medical advice. Which begs the question, who would provide the funding? “Ideally, it should be available through NHS/social services but these are stretched, so it’s now down to charities and private providers,” she answers. “However, employers and those who benefit commercially from the industry have some responsibility not only to fund services, but to provide conditions that foster good physical and mental health.”

During her time as Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger was trying to get government to recognise that mental health should be a cross-governmental responsibility, and not just dealt with from the Department of Health. “I want to see the business department work with employers, the education department working with schools and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport working more closely with community organisations and so on,” she says. “In that way, key industries, such as the music industry that touches the lives of millions of people, could be supported to improve people’s mental health. Unfortunately, there simply wasn’t enough of that innovative thinking from the government.

“It is important for us to see a culture change, led by government, that supports organisational initiatives and encourages them to link up with community organisations. BAPAM does great work with the Musicians’ Union and others, but it needs the support and encouragement from government to do more.”

For musicians with management and label deals, the consensus at The Great Escape was that those companies should be helping to alleviate stress by advising on money management, health and lifestyle, and offering financial support if needed for rehab or therapy. There are also a number of self-help measures musicians can take to reduce the chance of being hit with bad mental health in future.

Creative consultant Clare Scivier, who has been coaching musicians for eight years, advises: “If you’ve had mental health issues in your family or you know that you have triggers, before you sign a contract or get involved with anyone on the business side, I would recommend having some cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro-linguistic programming or coaching to understand why you are going into this, and what kind of people you need to be working with.”

Creating an alter ego is one of the measures Scivier schools musicians to adopt so they can better manage the ups and downs of a life spent performing. “The performer is different to the person who buys sandwiches and does normal functioning things. If you build a healthy avatar that you step into for performance, it makes your normal life a safer place to go back to once you’ve finished,” she explains. Some of Scivier’s other tips include being in a safe and comfortable environment when writing or practicing music, which can help alleviate pressure, and remembering to loosen up and breathe when faced with potentially stressful situations.

But perhaps the most important step to take is communication. When Harvey was suffering, he told his management and they advised he speak to someone professional about how he was feeling. He took a train to London and went to a mental health care facility which set him on the road to recovery. 

“One of the most amazing things about being there was sharing what I was going through with people openly,” he remembers. “It felt good that I wasn’t the only person feeling those things. To recover you have to understand at some point that you’re broken. If I could give the 18-year-old version of me any advice, it would be to speak sooner.”