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You are not alone: help for musicians suffering mental health issues

A guide for songwriters, artists, composers - and anyone working in the music industry - to the growing mental health crisis and where you can get help.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 24 Oct 2017
  • min read
When we published the key findings of a new Help Musicians UK study Can Music Make You Sick? last week, we were overwhelmed by your response across social media.

Musicians, songwriters, artists and composers from the UK and around the world shared the story in their hundreds of thousands, helping push mental health up the musical agenda.

The headlines? Musicians are three times more likely to experience depression than the general public, with many enduring ‘poor working conditions’.

To arrive at their conclusions, authors Sally-Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave of Westminster University interviewed more than 2,200 musicians, many of whom confirmed what Sally-Anne had already suspected.

‘I knew from my everyday experiences of living and working with musicians – and even in my teaching environment – that some difficult questions needed to be asked; how is it if we all love music so much everybody is so stressed out and in several cases very clearly mentally unwell?’ she says.

Before she began, she recognised her line of questioning would elicit similar responses about drug and alcohol abuse, and emotional personality types, and hoped the report would raise alarm bells across the industry.

‘I really felt that we needed to start talking and more importantly listening to what musicians - not just the famous ones - but those who get up every day and graft away on their music, have to say,’ Sally-Anne explains. ‘What is really important is that we start listening and start finding solutions.’

Co-author George says that since its publication, he’s been inundated with messages from musicians who are thankful this conversation is finally gaining traction.

‘It’s vital that we begin to do two things. Firstly, understand that precariousness is not just a financial matter, but the defining feature of creative work,’ he says. ‘Secondly, to see that precarity has profound psychological implications. As the world of work changes – increasing self-employment, “flexible” working, and an erosion of rights more generally – we must all face the emotional toil of precarity.’

Help at hand

Following the publication of Can Music Make You Sick? Help Musicians UK has made three pledges; to establish a music industry mental health taskforce, launch a 24/7 mental health service, Music Minds Matter, by December this year and finally, advocate change across the industry.

This will surely offer a vital lifeline to those who are struggling, and help the music industry better understand the issues, as the charity reports a 22 percent increase in requests for support year-on-year.

Christine Brown, Help Musicians UK’s director of external affairs, says: ‘Mental health challenges within the industry have reached crisis point and how we support those experiencing mental health concerns is a huge issue for both the music community and wider society.’

Once the charity has implemented its three-point plan, it intends to work with partners in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to underpin a global approach. ‘This will also ensure those musicians on tour can gain useful access no matter where they are,’ Christine figures.

There are other organisations out there which are also working to address poor mental health in music. From the PRS for Music Members’ Benevolent Fund to the national institution Mind, these are dedicated support networks in place for musicians and music industry professionals.

Here’s the lowdown on four of the best:

PRS for Music Members’ Benevolent Fund
‘We know that mental health is a serious, yet common, issue among songwriters and composers,’ says the Fund’s general secretary John Logan. ‘To this end, our staff, and members of the Fund committee, have undertaken a mental health first aid course through the Islington branch of Mind, so we’re equipped to take calls and get songwriters the help they need.

‘We know there’s always an underlying cause for the mental health problem – everything from depression to financial worries, the reasons are many and varied. We always need to ensure we can assist with dynamic solutions to fit every individual need and help ease the suffering.’

The Fund has been working with Mind for some time now, and together they have developed a road map for working with songwriters and composers suffering from mental illness. PRS members can contact the charity either by phone or email to confidentially discuss their needs.

Although the charity doesn’t counsel directly, it works closely with Mind and the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, which has a network of GPs and trained clinicians on hand to help out. Through this network, they are able to offer discreet, bespoke treatment. For more info, please see www.prsformusicfund.com

Mind has 140 branches throughout England and Wales, with each one tailored towards local needs. Services include talking therapies, peer support, advocacy, crisis care, employment and housing support.

You can call the charity’s dedicated infoline on 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm) or text on 86463. The infoline team can provide details on different types on mental health problems, where to get help, advocacy, medication and alternative treatments. They can also help you find local sources of support.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, says: ‘We know that work life, regardless of the profession, can create pressures that affect our mental health. For musicians, working long or irregular hours and dealing with the unstable nature of the industry may lead to stress. Add to this the pressures associated with living life in the public eye and you can see why, left unsupported, musicians could experience a deterioration in their health.’

Although Mind operates in England and Wales, anyone can visit www.mind.org.uk for information about mental health problems,’ she continues.

‘As well as providing information and support, Mind’s website also features Your Stories, where you can read, watch or listen to everyday stories about how people are living with mental health problems. Reading someone else’s story can be a great way to learn from other people’s experiences.’

Music Support
For a bespoke music-focused charity, look no further than Music Support, which helps anyone in the UK music industry suffering with mental health issues, alcoholism and addiction. Set up and managed by a group of industry veterans in recovery from addiction and mental health issues, the charity sits on the ‘grittier’ end of the support spectrum, offering peer-to-peer insight and the benefit of real-life experience.

It operates a 24/7 confidential phone line – 0800 030 6789 – manned by volunteers who can lend an ear and signpost you to certified and accredited professionals in the fields of addiction and mental health. The charity also provides ‘safe tents’ backstage at UK festivals where anyone working backstage - artists, performers, managers and venue workers – can go to escape the mayhem, chat to someone or attend a 12 Steps meeting.

‘I’ve been in the music industry for a long time. For a big part of that time I suffered badly from a combination of addiction and mental health issues.  I was very, very sick. My life was torn apart.’ says the charity’s co-founder Matt Thomas. ‘Music Support is born out of that experience, and the experiences of the other founders, and the fact that we were lucky enough to find recovery. We were brought together by a common passion to spread this message to others across the industry with the message “you are not alone”. We’ve all seen people die. We can’t carry on watching it happen.

‘We know mental health and addiction are massively interrelated. We’re seeing a huge rise in the numbers of people coming forward for help. I believe that one of the reasons is trust – when people see we’re a charity, and that we’re from the industry, it helps. We’re dealing with vulnerable people here, people who can be exploited. But they know we can signpost them to the most appropriate clinicians for their needs.

Matt says music industry has been ‘incredible’ in its support for the charity, with significant support or encouragement from the BPI, the BRIT Trust, Festival Nation, Live Nation, the Music Manager’s Forum (MMF) and many more.

Earlier this year, Music Support and the MMF produced A Music Manager’s Guide to Mental Health, the first in a series of publications tackling the issue. Its three main areas of focus are: anxiety and depression; alcoholism and drug addiction, and; work balance and boundaries. Learn more about it here.

Help Musicians UK

In December, Help Musicians UK is launching Music Minds Matter, a round-the-clock initiative for musicians. Operating as a triage service, it will offer emotional support and advice in the first instance, while 'tier 2' and 'tier 3' programmes include ongoing support and additional services such as online or face-to-face counselling, cognitive behavioral therapy, debt, legal and benefits advice.

Christine says: 'The release of the final report and recommendations for Can Music Make You Sick? this month has seen us pledge to establish a Music Industry Mental Health Taskforce, to lead the drive for change across the industry as well as launching a landmark 24/7 mental health service Music Minds Matter for anyone working in the music industry in December 2017.

'The industry-specific service will aim to provide qualified, professional, safe, focused support, advice, education and where possible, improved access and signposting to existing mental health services. Whilst other helplines exist in the UK and beyond, the Music Minds Matter service will be the most comprehensive – linking counselling, therapy and clinical signposting to the charity’s traditional grant-makingand partner activities... For a musician and those in the industry, this provision is likely to be life changing,' she adds.

In addition to this new service, the charity also has an existing health and welfare programme to support professional musicians and those who contribute to the creative process of the music profession. This includes financial support, referral to medical and mental health support, a visit at home to discuss the person’s needs, befriending or a combination of these services. For more info, see www.helpmusicians.org.uk or contact the health and welfare team on 020 7239 9101 or help@helpmusicians.org.uk

Access the full Can Music Make You Sick? academic papers (the pilot and the follow-up qualitative report) via MusicTank - http://www.musictank.co.uk/publications/our-reports/