Musicians face unique challenges when it comes to maintaining their mental health.
AIM is deeply committed to supporting our students at times of inner turbulence – from brief moments of darkness to the long-term battle of living with a diagnosed mental illness. We recognise that it can take an infinite amount of strength to stay level in what can be an unstable world; with real dreams on the line.
To provide some expert insight on musicians and mental health from within AIM, we spoke to Robert Brennan, AIM’s Wellbeing Manager. Robert started out playing in bands as a teenager, then studied psychotherapy in his mid-twenties. He then worked in private practice as a psychologist for over a decade before establishing himself in the world of education.
The aggressive vulnerability required of every artist can take its toll, first and foremost. “Without a doubt, the biggest challenge I find is that musicians and creative artists are putting their heart and soul out into the community,” AIM Wellbeing Manager Robert Brennan says. “Once they’re out there, these personal works may not be interpreted the way the artist intended, which can be a challenge to anyone’s mental health.”
Beyond laying one’s soul bare, COVID’s cruel dominance of the last few years dealt a savage blow to the entire music ecosystem, creating a “shadow pandemic” of mental illness in Australian music. It is unsurprising this drastic and unprecedented shutdown of the industry had an enormous impact on musicians’ and creatives’ wellbeing.
According to music mental health charity Support Act’s 2022 Mental Health and Wellbeing In Music and Live Performing Arts Survey, more than 20% of those surveyed in the industry lived below the poverty line during the height of the pandemic. They experienced anxiety at a rate double the general population and two and a half times the rate of depression.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on artists’ financial stability and robbed them of the emotional connection via the sacred act of live performance. Beyond the stage, the therapeutic value of just playing and singing together can’t be underestimated – many students and staff at AIM remark on how healing it is to be playing together in real classrooms again.
As musicians gingerly step back onto the stage and the green shoots emerge on the blackened trees of the burned-out Aussie music industry, you may ask: how can I support the musician in my life?
“It can be really supportive for those around musicians to tolerate their ambiguity, e.g. sometimes not knowing how they’re feeling, why they do things or where they’re going,” he says. Black and white answers aren’t an artists’ forte, and their tendency to live in their imagination requires a certain kind of sensitivity to be around.
Our students have had another interesting problem in a post-COVID universe – live performance is a real challenge after years of just strumming in their bedrooms. According to our experts, there are a few clever ways to combat performance anxiety. With our performance-based degrees making up an enormous proportion of the education we offer at AIM, supporting students in this area is a high priority for our Wellbeing and Student Support departments alongside our academic staff – the majority of whom are active performers themselves.
A community of like-minded artists makes an enormous difference to a musician’s ability to anchor themselves to emotional stability. That community springs up naturally at AIM, as students coalesce on campus, form bands, form attachments and find their people – sometimes for the first time. We also look to add another safety net below this. We understand that as a music student, mistakes happen, anxiety is common and putting your soul out there needs a supportive environment, and free on-campus counselling. Our Equal Opportunity Adjustment Plans (EOAP) also give current and prospective students the opportunity to have reasonable adjustments put in place for their studies. This can accommodate all kinds of mental impairments and conditions, short- and long-term. AIM creates a space where musicians can flourish, regardless of what they’re going through.
There are practical ways to overcome some of the mental challenges of being a musician that all artists can take advantage of. To combat writer’s block (which can be a traumatic experience, especially under pressure), using hard blocks of time to write or practice can really help! When the timer goes off – its tools down. Another approach is to scatter your laser focus elsewhere. Yes, being a great musician requires discipline, dedication and most artists are borderline obsessed with what they do, which is wonderful. However, stepping away from your instrument from time to time can do wonders. We wish all the artists out there a joyous Mental Health Month.
Some great mental health resources we recommend: