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Why Psychological Analysis Shows We're Right To Worry For Musicians' Mental Health
The Quietus , May 16th, 2018 10:21

On Mental Health Awareness Week and following the sad death of Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison, Catherine Loveday & Sally-Anne Gross of the University of Westminster look at recent research into the psychological issues affecting musicians (photo by Joe Puxley)

Last week brought the tragic news of the untimely death of Frightened Rabbit singer, Scott Hutchison. He had spoken openly about his struggles with anxiety and depression, and his songs reflected the turbulence of his inner life. Hutchison was not alone in facing these challenges – approximately one in four people in the UK will suffer from mental health difficulties each year, and every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. But a 2016 survey carried out by University of Westminster for Help Musicians UK suggests that the problem may be up to three times greater in professional musicians and those working in music – around 70% of whom reported suffering from anxiety and/or depression. This prompts an important question: does the music business attract people with a tendency to mental health problems, or could there be something inherently damaging about being a musician or working in the music industry?

Our research into this link between mental wellbeing and musicianship reveals a complex picture with many contributing factors. It may be true that people sensitive to psychological distress are more drawn to making music – it is a powerful natural emotion regulator. But this is a dangerous assumption to make because there are many external forces at work: the uncertainties around income and employment, the pressure to harness creativity on demand, the tensions around ideas of authenticity versus commercial success. And let's not underestimate the effects of irregular routines on physical and mental well-being – poor eating habits, disrupted sleep and lack of exercise directly impact on the stress hormone cortisol, and other brain chemicals that regulate mood.

Loneliness and lack of social support is also a significant issue for professional musicians, and there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that this is a critical factor in both mental and physical health. Being creative is often a solitary process, and where there is company it most often involves work colleagues – co-performers, managers, crew, sometimes even competitors – and the social landscape can change suddenly and frequently. Scientific research shows that music encourages a sense of camaraderie and connectedness, and studies have even suggested that brain activity may become synchronised during performances. But when this is happening in a professional capacity, the experience may be short-lived and lack the authenticity and substance of long-term social support from real friends.  

In an earlier survey by Help Musicians UK, respondents consistently said that making music was beneficial to their sense of self and well-being. However, in our more recent study, musicians also acknowledged that there were times when performing and composing could lead to psychological distress, and we have been interested in examining this phenomenon. Scientists as far back as Darwin have suggested that musical performance is a fundamental expression of the self – it taps into the heart of our primal communication system, and relies on all the same basic building blocks: melody, pitch, timbre and rhythm. A singer uses the same parts of their anatomy and the same regions in their brain as those that we use to communicate our basic emotional needs as babies, and that we later use to connect with our offspring.

Because of this, writing or performing music is possibly the most fundamental expression of a person's emotions and inner world. It is nigh on impossible not to take rejection or failure – reflected in anything from a poor audience, to a negative critique, to a lack of income – as personal, because by definition it is personal. A performance is often a conduit for someone's innermost feelings – to share this with the world can put people in an enormously vulnerable situation.

If this is true then we might expect solo artists and songwriters to have greater struggles with mental health than others in the music business. We have recently re-examined the data collected in 2016 and found support for this hypothesis. Rates of anxiety and depression are statistically higher in people who are solo performers or songwriters (around 76-77%) compared with band members and live crew (around 55-65%).  Those who create music as part of a team are still susceptible to many of the factors listed above, but are arguably buffered against the more individual personal rejection that a solo artist faces. They may also be more likely to work in a consistent team and to benefit from the bonding brain chemicals that are released when people perform or watch music together.  We found that publishers and music managers lie somewhere in between solo artists and live crew – they still face many of the same stressors and some that are unique to the role, but do not embody the music and bare their soul in the same way that an artist does.

Our analysis also shows that female musicians are more vulnerable than their male counterparts and have higher rates of anxiety and depression. Does this reflect a higher pressure and more challenges for women in the industry? Many would argue that the music business has been slower than some professions to address gender inequalities; certainly it is still very male-dominated. A recent article pointed out that only 6% of the Music Producers Guild are women and more than two thirds of live acts appearing on stage in the UK are men only. Laura Marling and Emmy The Great are among those who have spoken about the challenges of working in this all-male environment. Evolutionary psychologists may argue that this has its roots in sexual expression – Charles Darwin saw musicianship as a means of attracting a mate, and many have gone on to, for example, liken the guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix to a peacock showing its feathers. Others would argue that it is simply the result of good old-fashioned sexism. Either way, it undoubtedly makes life harder for female musicians.

But it's not all bad news. We also found that as musicians get older, they report lower levels of anxiety and depression. This is consistent with a study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2012, which showed that mortality rates decreased in those who had been in the business for 25 years or more. This may simply reflect the "positivity bias", which we know increases with age in the general population, but there is also greater financial security, a more established social support group, and possibly a learned ability to separate the performance from the self. And of course, musicians who have been in the industry for that long are by definition those that have had a degree of success.  

Scott Hutchison joins a long list of tragic musical losses, and we now have solid evidence that musicians are particularly vulnerable when it comes to mental health. As researchers, it is vital that we learn more about the complex psychological factors that underlie this phenomenon, and that we seek to address any systematic ways in which the music industry may be damaging or failing people. We can also help and support individuals by offering reliable social support, encouraging them to take practical steps to look after their health, and directing them to support when and if they need it. This Mental Health Awareness week, let's pledge to be mindful of the wellbeing in those who create the music that enriches our lives.  

Help Musicians UK have recently launched a 24/7 support line called Music Minds Matter for working and retired musicians who are concerned about their mental health. Other forms of support can be found through Mind, The Samaritans, and through GP services.