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A guide to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of musicians

Team Soundbrenner, in Music lessons
Jun 22, 2022 | 10 min read

An introduction to mental health

Research suggests that artists and performers are seven times more likely to experience poor mental health. This in-depth and comprehensive guide aims to raise mental health awareness amongst performers and musicians, promote healthy practices for mental wellbeing, offer useful tools and resources, and suggest helpful charities and support organisations that may be particularly useful to musicians.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is an essential part of general health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

They go on to define mental health as a state of wellbeing in which an individual can:

  • Realise their own abilities
  • Cope with the normal stresses of life
  • Work productively
  • Make a contribution to their community

Essentially, mental health is not simply the absence of any mental health conditions.

Mental health charity Mind notes that a quarter of people will experience some kind of mental health problem each year.

It is worth noting that people’s diagnoses can change throughout their lives.

Mental health and musicians: statistics

The largest known study into mental health and the music industry was carried out by the University of Westminster and MusicTank, and commissioned by the charity Help Musicians.

Music Minds Matter found the following:

Respondents suggested that the following reasons contributed to poor mental health.

The second part of the same study also uncovered some information about how musicians see themselves:

  • Their relationship to their work is part of how they define themselves.
  • They can be very self-critical, as being a musician involves constant feedback, whether you’re playing solo, in an orchestra, or in a band.
  • They want to appear as if they’re in control, even if they’re struggling.

As a result of this, the study proposes changes across education and best practice, as well as a mental health support service for musicians and anyone else working in music.

Wider studies around mental health in the workplace have found mixed results.

In a 2021 survey:

On a positive note, the proportion of people in senior roles who have employee wellbeing on their agenda has risen significantly (75% in 2021, compared to 61% in 2020).

However, 46% of workplaces do not have a formal strategy or policy when it comes to mental health, taking an ad-hoc approach instead, which can lead to uncertainty. And employees are worried about discussing their mental health openly. In another survey, 64% of respondents admitted they were scared of being judged by their managers if they talked about their mental health. Reasons they gave included:

(source)

The same research showed that 46.1% of professionals have considered leaving a job because it impacted their mental health, suggesting that businesses are more likely to retain staff if they take their wellbeing into account.

Creating a better working environment

There are multiple ways an employer can be more accommodating of its employees and their wellbeing.

Avoid stigmatising mental health in the workplace
This can be done by talking openly about it and raising awareness so all employees are equally informed.

Provide training for employees so they are better equipped to talk about mental health at work
People are more likely to bring up issues if they know they’ll be dealt with in a sensitive manner.

Recommend mental health services
Although scheduling one-to-one catch-ups where employees can discuss any issues will help, sometimes someone will need to seek professional help. Have some recommendations to hand.

Recent mental health statistics
Global events appear to have had a significant impact on the population’s mental health, with the latest survey showing that 21% of adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021. This was an increase from the previous quarter (19%), and over double the amount reported before the pandemic (10%).

Of the respondents:

  • Adults aged 16-29 were most likely to report experience of depression (34%)
  • Women were more likely to experience depression, across all age groups (43%, compared with 26% of men the same age)
  • Adults of mixed ethnicity were more likely to experience depression than white adults (35% compared to 20%)
  • Disabled adults were more likely to experience depression than non-disabled adults (39% compared to 13%)

Particularly concerning is that those in more precarious economic positions or burdened by existing inequalities – young people, women, clinically vulnerable adults, disabled people and those living in the most deprived areas of England – have been disproportionately affected. This suggests inequalities in our society have worsened as a result of the pandemic.

said Jo Bibby, Director of Health at the Health Foundation, in response to these figures.

Healthy practices for mental wellbeing

There’s a lot that we can all do in order to support our mental health. Let’s explore some of these actions now.

Reframe unhelpful thoughts and behaviours

It’s easy to let thoughts come and go without really questioning them. But not all our thoughts are helpful or rational. Even the simple act of taking time to recognise when your thoughts are negative or irrational can help.

You can go one step further by reframing them. This means that as well as actively noticing your unhelpful thoughts, you then go on to turn them into something more useful. The new thought doesn’t have to be positive; it just needs to put your feelings into perspective. For example, “I performed terribly today” can be turned into “I’m going to rehearse the difficult part of the performance before we go on stage tomorrow.”

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and not too overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. It can help us notice how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking, which in turn can help us gain perspective.

Mindfulness can be practised in different ways, so if one technique doesn’t suit you, there’s always another.

  • 1. Meditation

You can use an app or video online as guidance, or just sit quietly and observe your thoughts and feelings as they come and go.

  • 2. Meditating while doing other activities

Yoga is the most common option, as it’s a naturally meditative practice, but you can incorporate meditation into other types of movement or activity, including playing an instrument. Focusing your attention on what you’re doing often allows you to be fully present.

  • 3. Taking pauses throughout the day

Whether it’s some time to gather yourself before you start your day, or a moment to reflect before you go to bed, taking a few minutes to be in the moment can create a sense of calm.

How to meditate

Find a comfortable seat

Cross your legs (if you’re on the floor or a meditation cushion), or make sure your feet are firmly on the floor (if you’re sitting on a chair).

Sit up straight

But not unnaturally straight – you should feel comfortable, not stiff. Place your hands in your lap or on the tops of your legs.

Lower your gaze or close your eyes

Which you choose is entirely down to personal preference.

Observe your breath as it goes in and out

Don’t try to breathe in a specific way. Your mind may wander, but don’t judge yourself if this happens. Instead, just notice your thoughts and feelings, then refocus on your breath.

How to be mindful when playing an instrument

Whether you’re practicing or performing, there are ways to be mindful when you play an instrument.

During practice

Remove any distractions, if possible. Then start by warming up, easing yourself into it. The exercises you do will vary depending on the instrument you play.

If you’re working on a piece of music and come to a section you find difficult, you should stop and try to understand why it’s difficult and how you might tackle it, instead of starting from the beginning. Not only does this stop you from practising the beginning many more times than the other sections of the piece, but it’s also an opportunity to really focus and be mindful.

Before and during a performance

It’s natural to feel nervous before a performance. Accept those nerves – they mean you care about what you’re about to do. You may find it helpful to take some deep, calming breaths. Another way to be mindful before performing is to be very deliberate with everything you do. This will stop you from feeling rushed and frantic, and will anchor your mind in the present.

It sounds obvious, but during the performance itself, focus on the conductor or your bandmates and the music. Listen carefully, even when you’re not the one playing. This will help you avoid getting to the end of a show and not remembering quite how you got there.

Reach out to others

Never underestimate the power of spending time with people you love and trust, whether that’s friends, family, or a partner. Talking to someone about how you feel can stop feelings of isolation and loneliness. You don’t necessarily need to sit them down for a big conversation (although that can help in some situations). Often the subject will come up naturally. You may even encourage the other person to be more open too.

Look after your physical health

How we feel physically and how we feel mentally are often linked. Good mental health can positively affect your physical health, and poor mental health can negatively affect it. In fact, around 30% of people with a long-term physical health condition also have a mental health condition.

Let’s look at the ways you can take care of your physical health.

Sleep

The importance of sleep can’t be underestimated. Sleep allows our bodies and minds to rest, our brains to function, and our bodies to remain healthy enough to ward off diseases and other illnesses.

If you don’t get enough sleep, you could be vulnerable to:

  • Lack of concentration
  • Reduced cognition
  • Delayed reactions
  • Mood shifts
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Poor mental health
  • Early death

(source)

The NHS notes most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep per night. They recommend going to sleep and waking up at similar times each day.

As a musician, you’re likely to have a different work schedule to the standard 9-5, especially if you’re playing in shows and concerts, or at functions such as weddings. Therefore, it can be difficult to create a bedtime routine. Additionally, playing in front of an audience is likely to increase levels of adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, all of which make it more difficult to go to sleep. They can increase your heart rate and block melatonin – the sleep hormone.

However, there are things you can do to signal to your brain and body that it’s time for sleep, even if you can’t do them at the same time every night.

Avoid screens

Electronic devices emit blue light, which can suppress melatonin production. Put them away at least an hour before you plan to go to sleep, and keep them out of your bedroom altogether if possible.

Have a warm bath or shower

Your body temperature will lower after you get out, which tells the brain it’s time for bed and can even reduce the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep by 10 minutes.

Write everything down

Whether that’s a to-do list for the following day, a list of things you’re grateful for, journal entries using prompts, or just whatever comes into your head, the act of writing it down can clear your mind before bed.

Try stretching or yoga

Gentle movement can relax your muscles.

Read a book or listen to a sleep story

Meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace have relaxing audio available if you don’t want to read.

Diet

You may have heard the term “balanced diet.” This simply means eating a variety of food groups, in the right proportions to stay healthy. The NHS recommends:

  • At least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day. They’re a great source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre. Fresh, frozen, tinned and dried all count. One portion is 80g of fresh, frozen or tinned, or 30g of dried fruit with a meal.
  • Basing meals around starchy carbohydrates, such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and potatoes with the skins on. These are our main source of energy, and also contain important vitamins and nutrients.
  • Eating sources of protein, such as lean meat, fish, beans, pulses, eggs, and tofu. Protein is essential for repairing cells and making new ones, maintaining muscle mass and bone mass, and helping you to feel full.
  • Including dairy and dairy alternatives, such as milk, cheese and yogurt. These are good sources of calcium, vitamins and minerals, which are vital for teeth and bone density and help the body to form blood clots. If you don’t consume dairy, look for alternatives which are fortified with these nutrients.

Water

Drinking at least eight glasses of water per day, more if you’re active or if the weather is warm. Hydration helps us to concentrate, digest our food, and control the temperature of our bodies, as well as with heart health and circulation.

If you’re not keen on plain water, you can add fruit or some no-added-sugar squash, or infuse a tea bag for extra flavour.

On the go? Bring a refillable water bottle with you. There are some varieties with measurements or timings on the side to remind you to drink.

Caffeine

Drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks, can help us to feel more awake. Tea and coffee can be consumed in small doses as part of a balanced diet.

However, it’s important to be aware of the effects caffeine can have on you. It’s a stimulant, meaning it increases activity in the brain and nervous system. In the right dose, this can increase your concentration and energy levels. But consume too much caffeine and you may feel anxious, restless and irritable, as it increases the amount of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). Between four and five cups per day is considered a moderate amount.

Alcohol

It may be tempting to wind down after a performance by having a drink. But the risk alcohol has towards your health increases if you drink on a regular basis, no matter how little you consume.

If you do drink, the NHS recommends the following to keep your risk low:

  • Aim not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week
  • If you do drink as much as 14 units per week, try to spread it evenly over three or more days
  • Try to have several alcohol-free days each week
  • Do not drink if you are pregnant

Exercise

The NHS recommends that adults should do some type of exercise every day, either 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise spread throughout the week. How this is broken up is up to you, and can be worked around your routine.

You can also incorporate strengthening exercises, such as yoga, pilates, weight lifting, and body-weight exercises like press-ups.

Make time for things you enjoy

For many musicians, what was once a hobby has become a career. So it’s worth finding other activities that you do solely for fun and relaxation outside of work. These could be physical activities that count towards your weekly activity levels, or something more relaxed like reading or painting. Whatever it is, do it for the joy and let go of the need to be good at something.

Getting additional support

Sometimes you may need extra help beyond lifestyle changes – or to get help so you can get into a position where lifestyle changes are possible. Here are some resources and services you can access.

If your life is at risk, you need to seek urgent medical help.

Call 999 and ask for an ambulance or Go to A&E or Call your local crisis team, if you’ve been given their number.

Mental health support through the NHS

Mental health services are free on the NHS. You can often self-refer, although in some cases you’ll need a referral from your GP, who may be able to make a diagnosis and will be able to find the service you need. Speaking to your GP about your mental health is a good place to start, as they can also recommend other treatments, such as medication.

There are a range of talking therapies available. Let’s look at what they are.

Behavioural activation
This type of therapy gives people with depression practical ways to make small changes and take on the problems that affect their mood.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Your therapist will help you address unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.

Counselling
Your therapist will allow you to talk about the difficulties you’re facing and help you find ways to address them.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
A way for people experiencing PTSD to process the triggering memories and flashbacks of their trauma, which stops the brain from bringing them up so frequently.

Guided self help
You work through a course with the help of a therapist, with the aim of equipping you with techniques you can use to deal with your mental health in everyday life.

Interpersonal therapy
This type of therapy looks at the role relationships play a role in depression and vice versa, and addresses the problems that arise.

Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy
This is a combination of mindfulness exercises and CBT.

You can search for local mental health services through the NHS website. Once you have decided on a provider, your GP can book an appointment while you’re at the surgery, you can book it yourself online.

Contacting a charity or listening service

Some charities and organisations provide free or low-cost talking therapies, or listening services that you can call or send messages to. Examples include:

It’s important to note that there’s a difference between talking therapies and listening services.

Talking therapies
These involve talking to a trained professional about your feelings and experiences. The therapist should be registered with a professional body and will guide you through tackling your issues.

Listening services
These also allow you to talk about your feelings and experiences. They won’t tell you what to do, and in most cases will listen to you for as long as you need it.

Paying for mental health support
You may wish to pay for mental health support if you are able to afford it, for example if the NHS waiting lists are long. Look for a therapist who is registered with a professional body, as they will have to uphold certain standards when they carry out their practice.

Look for a therapist who offers a free first session, so you can see if it would be a good fit. Some private therapists may also offer reduced rates for people with low income.
You can find a private therapist through the following bodies:

Useful links & other information

Help Musicians
Mind: Employers Coronavirus Guide
Getting help for my mental health and how to access support
NHS: How to access mental health services
NHS: Find mental health services


Soundbrenner is a company dedicated to helping musicians stay focused on what truly matters: their music. By creating innovative devices, such as Soundbrenner Pulse and Core, our goal is to deliver the best possible practice experience for musicians. Click here to find out more.

Got a question about Soundbrenner wearables? Reach out to us at [email protected], we’re happy to help!

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