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Mental Health Support for Musicians

Musicians suffer more mental ill health than the general population, yet their lifestyles make them harder to support. The industry is now acting to provide mental health support for musicians.

Last updated: 03 October 2023

From Mahler and Schumann to Cobain and Winehouse, there has long been a romanticised link between musicians and depression. But while popular culture idolises the idea of the ‘tortured genius’, the truth is more insidious. Not only are we losing talented artists to suicide and overdoses, but the lives of many more musicians are being made miserable by anxiety, depression, addiction and other psychiatric conditions.

The issue first started to get serious attention back in 2016, when the charity Help Musicians noticed a 22% rise in the number of people seeking help for mental health crises. The charity commissioned a survey of more than 2,000 self-identified professional musicians across the UK music industry, carried out by researchers at the University of Westminster. The results showed that seven out of ten were musicians with social anxiety and had suffered panic attacks, while just over two-thirds had experienced depression – three times more than the general population. More than half of the respondents said that they had found it difficult to get help, suggesting musicians and mental illness was a serious problem.

Why are musicians depressed?

Irregular working patterns

A 2019 study by Swedish digital platform Record Union produced similarly worrying results. The survey concluded that 73% of independent musicians struggle with mental illness. This figure climbed to 80% when researchers focused solely on the 18-25 age group.

Money worries have been highlighted as one of the major causes of musicians’ mental distress, coupled with the unpredictable nature of their work. This can be particularly acute when people feel they are financially reliant on family or partners, leading to feelings of guilt for pursuing music rather than getting a ‘proper job’. Irregular working patterns and late nights were also an issue, impacting on family life, relationships and friendships. Many musicians were also working several jobs in order to stay afloat financially, often without breaks, leading to mental and physical burn-out.

concluded that 73% of independent musicians who responded said they had struggled with mental illness. This figure climbed to 80% when researchers focused solely on the 18-25 age group.

Money worries have been highlighted as one of the major negative causes on musicians’ mental health, coupled with the unpredictable nature of their work. This can be particularly acute when people feel they are financially reliant on family or partners, leading to feelings of guilt for pursuing music rather than getting a ‘proper job’.

Irregular working patterns and late nights were also an issue, impacting on family life, relationships and friendships. Many musicians were also working several jobs in order to stay afloat financially, often without breaks, leading to mental and physical burn-out.

Stage fright to sexual harassment

Other problems include musicians’ performance anxiety (‘stage fright’), which can come on suddenly and affect even the most confident performers. Discrimination, bullying and coercion also cause significant mental distress, especially in those who are already psychologically vulnerable. Women, in particular, highlighted the widespread negative impact of sexism and sexual harassment in the music industry.

“Music is embodied in your sense of self – it’s a really deep belief in something that is helping you to construct yourself as a living, breathing subject and without which you feel unable to continue,” explains Gross. “But if you’ve invested a huge amount of time and effort into practising, writing and performing but things aren’t happening for you, then the disappointment can be immense.”

Touring can take its toll

While it may be the dream of many musicians to tour the world, life on the road brings its own issues that can have a dramatic impact on a musicians’ mental health.

“It might seem like you’re living the dream, but it can be absolutely miserable,” says Diane Widdison, the Musicians’ Union National Organiser for Education and Training. “You can end up eating badly, having no time for exercise or self-care and sleeping badly in poor accommodation or on a tour bus. A gruelling schedule might be quite exciting when you start out as a new conservatoire graduate, but 20 years down the line it’s going to be a drain on your physical as well as your mental health.”

Feeling drained and devalued

It’s a story that sounds all too familiar to Clive*, a bassist who toured extensively with an indie rock band in the early 90s. Clive spiralled into depression when the band finally broke up after a few years on the road.

“I think I went through as many mental states as there are states in America,” he laughs. “There’s the high of being on stage, but the reality is mostly quite tedious – you’re setting up all your gear, killing time before the gig, then packing it back down and getting back in the van, only to do it all again the next day.”

Evie*, an orchestral brass player and music teacher living in London, realised that she was suffering from anxiety and depression around four years ago when she had a series of breakdowns.

“A lot of it was to do with feeling that I wasn’t getting any work or that I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “I was being asked to do things for free or derisory fees, which made me feel very devalued and triggered a lot of self-worth issues.”

Where musicians can find help

Confidential counselling

Recognising the need to provide a service that caters to the unique challenges faced by people working in the music industry, Help Musicians launched Music Minds Matter in 2017. More than just a free musicians’ mental health helpline, it’s a comprehensive support service offering advice, information, resources, and professional and clinical services for musicians in need of help.

The service is confidential and staffed by trained volunteers. For a profession where many people struggle financially, the counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy is free to help musicians in the UK with their mental health, specifically those who make more than half their income from music and have less than £16,000 in savings. And best of all – it usually starts within a week.

Specialist support

Another source of help is Music Support, founded in 2016 by a group of music industry veterans who felt that more needed to be done, particularly in the area of drug addiction and alcoholism.

Music Support runs a 24/7 phone and email helpline staffed by volunteers with personal experience of the music business and the issues at stake. It also offers crisis support for urgent psychiatric or addiction situations, and training on mental health, resilience and addiction.

* Names have been changed for privacy

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