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Musicians and Our Mental Health

Photo: musicians in symphony

By Catherine Harrison
(Edited version first published in Canadian Musician Magazine, May 2022)

Imagine there’s no music. It’s pretty hard to do. Music is everywhere, providing background and context to our lives, our entertainment, our celebrations, and our miseries. As humans, it connects us. It’s critical that, as the people who make the music, we take care of our health, mentally and physically, so we can continue contributing to one of our species’ most valuable life forces.

As far as mental health goes, there are (at least) two things at play:

First, the incredible upheaval and disruption of COVID-19 has brought stress to even the steadiest among us. It rocked our ‘normal’ status quo and cracked apart our certainty, autonomy, social connectedness, and possibly even our ‘identity,’ including the things that make us feel comfortable and safe. The music industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors. There were no venues, gigs, income, or side hustles. And often, there was no understanding from the mainstream population.

Musicians may be experiencing some sense of shame, guilt, responsibility, worry, and possibly helplessness as we’ve returned to ‘normal.’ Even as gigs and tours were booked, venues opened, and audiences gleefully gobbled up tickets for live music again, dealing with the rollercoaster of on-again-off-again gigs, along with residual ‘other life stuff,’ was and is challenging to manage. Many professionals in the industry share that it was difficult to get their ‘sea legs’ back after 12-18 months of no gigs. Although there are more examples of influencers sharing their challenges in the media these days, there is still a tremendous stigma associated with mental health and substance use, and this makes reaching out and asking for help feel like an insurmountable task.

Second, musicians might be particularly susceptible to the challenges of maintaining mental wellness. Expressing oneself through writing and performing comes with an inherent risk of acceptance or rejection. Additionally, I’m sure many industry peers reading this can relate to their upside-down work environment. A musician’s time often vacillates from solo time to party time, and both ends of that spectrum can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Being a performer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an extrovert. Often, the associated activities required of a performer (interviews, promotional activities, touring life, etc.) can be stressful for introverts. It’s also an incredible high to perform for others and share in the communion of musical experience. Coming down off that high regularly can make it challenging to find balance and recover quickly enough to do it all over again. Sometimes, when not performing, you chase that elusive high through other less healthy means.

Also, at work venues and after events, many musicians find that unhealthy substance use is encouraged and even expected. In terms of schedule, the world runs from nine to five, but not you, which makes it challenging to get good quality sleep, regular physical activity, and healthy eating. Crucially, paycheques are often/mostly erratic, offering little stability and no benefits. We’ve all heard the “wanna work for exposure/free pizza and beer?” compensation package. It is stressful to be both underappreciated and behind the eight-ball financially. And while home, there is often the feeling of being misunderstood and underappreciated by family, friends, community.

If these scenarios resonate with you, how can you care for yourself?

First, get aware of your mental fitness. Journaling, talking to others, reading, learning a mindfulness practice. Find actions that support your mental well-being and commit to practicing them regularly. Learn to manage distractions and negative self-talk chatter. Be present. Cultivate empathy. Practice gratitude and compassion – for yourself and others. Learn equanimity (as Sir Paul said, “Let it be.”)

If you don’t know how to do these things, that’s OK. Now is the time to begin to learn. And just because you learn and practice these skills doesn’t mean you won’t feel the negative stress and pressures anymore, or you won’t have bad days. It just means you can weather the storm(s) in a more healthful and balanced way and support others to do the same.

One upside of this “virtual” world is tremendous opportunities to share and receive information, knowledge, and expertise. If you don’t know where to start, learning how to talk about mental health is the first step. Our company, Revelios, provides training and coaching for mental health literacy, psychological safety at work, and how to provide mental health first aid to someone in need. Unison Fund is a go-to resource for Canadian music industry professionals, supporting unmet financial and mental health needs. Reach out, follow, and connect with industry peers to share stories, struggles, wins, and resources. Peer support is essential because it gives you a non-judgmental and supportive safe space to talk about what’s going on. You don’t have to change your language for people to understand where you’re coming from. Musicians often burn the candle at both ends. We need to be there for each other.

Creating and sharing music is a valuable and cathartic release for emotional pain and suffering and for processing the whole human experience, with all its trials and tribulations. Get it on the page, through your instrument(s), alone or with your band. Transform the energy into something meaningful and transcendent. Connect to others so you can learn to improve your mental fitness now and in the long run.