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Cassidy Watts grapples with some of the challenges that performers face in dealing with their mental health as well as the need to address these issues as a matter of priority, both from a historical and current perspective.
Music is one of the most important elements in everyday life, adding value in aspects of entertainment, hobby and profession. The value of music has grown exponentially over the last 20 or so years, presenting music as a new commodity in the line of medical aid, emotional and behavioural influencers, music therapy and the general expansion of the need for music. Of course, with increased demand, there are even more opportunities for income for composers. With the value of music going beyond listening and entertainment, the new curative, therapeutic and medical value is helping improve an individual’s mental health. Studies have had success in proving that music therapy can help the physical, mental and behavioural qualities of those with disabilities and those suffering from depression and anxiety however, there seems to be little to counteract this.
When looking at musicians and composers in the entertainment industry where music is their be all or end all, it can become the reason for their decline in health and overall, contribute to the end of their career. When looking at a lifetime of deadlines, criteria and continuous creative output, for many it becomes a continuous struggle to find the worth in what they do, whilst keeping their mental health a priority. As a composer, I am going to address some of the issues composers face and also the contributing factors of declines in composer mental health and why they need to be addressed.
Whilst we can say music is social, physical, engaging and entertaining it can also be stressful, time-consuming and overwhelming in a compositional state. To put it simply, a composer is defined as a person who writes music. Over the years, this has begun to acknowledge modern songwriters, electronic composers and improvisers as the role of composers has changed dramatically in the various types of music that is consumed these days. In the baroque/classical period, creating music which is “served as a musical expression for brilliant composers, a source of entertainment for aristocrats, a way of life for musicians and a temporary escape from the routines of daily life for the general public” . Whilst this all seems artificial, music was held highly to the public but generated a great creative strain on the composers of the time. In modern day these roles still exist however causing a whole different strand of scrutiny however, simultaneously receiving a newly found respect.
Moreover, one thing that has stayed the same over the years is the pressing responsibility of not only composing music but maintaining the interest and worthiness of the work which is becoming tougher to do. As composers present their work as their own identity, when faced with scrutiny and negativity their self-worth and integrity is impacted, becoming particularly vulnerable in this industry. For this to be addressed, courses in dealing with these stresses should be put in place to readily help composers and others in the industry to understand how to appropriately deal with certain feedback and maintain their self-respect and confidence.
One of the most widely discussed contemporary definitions from the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Whilst this definition represents substantial progress in eradicating the conceptualisation of mental health as a state of absence of mental illness, it has instead conceptualising a purely positive effect marked by feelings of happiness and accomplishment.
In a recovery sense this can be reassuring in understanding it is possible, however for some this may come across daunting as the misleading statement dismisses the internal balance and equilibrium that enables individuals to recognise, express and modulate one’s own emotions. It is important to recognise the recovery movement but in a complete sense where acknowledging an initial fear, sadness, anger and/or grief as inclusive and almost welcoming for those currently suffering. This is one of the first steps in opening dialogue for not only composers, but everyone affected by mental hardships.
It is important to note that the struggle for composers did not start recently, it was only just brought to light due to recent studies and research. Looking at one of the largest collections of composers from over 500 years ago, we discover the reasons of death and diagnoses throughout their lifespan which notedly is on average just over 60 years of age. With data collated from ten thousand autobiographies and over a thousand pathographies, pressing issues common to most composers of the time included depression, anxiety, alcoholism and suicide. Considering the time period, healthcare and support services were not as present as they are today which must be regarded. Other mental health diseases that arose were personality disorder (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach) and Schizophrenic disorder (Schumann, Simonffy, Gurney), suggesting that music could have played a role in easing symptoms for these composers however, this cannot be known for certain.
Handel who lived to 74, expressed great sadness mainly due to his old age, “he was especially down, due to his impossibility to lead further dynamic life of a performer and composer.” This in turn led to excessive consumption of alcohol and the onset of depression, no longer giving worth to his own life . It is suggested that the reasoning for more pressed mental health issues in the early ages was due to lack of psychiatric help and support, leading composers to fend for themselves, resulting in alcohol and drugs. This is further reflected with many other composers of the time and even nowadays where they have surpassed their ‘golden days’ and can no longer improve or continue with their work, having nothing else to do except resulting in excessive drinking, drugs and sexual encounters (where applicable).
Looking into more current times, studies such as ‘Creativity and Mental Illness,’ author Natalie Timoshin has researched the mental health of film composers imparting that the nature of such freelance creative work, presents countless high-level stressors, overall creating an at-risk population for psychological issues. Statistics from this study illustrate that film composers are 10 times more likely to experience anxiety and 5 times more likely to experience depression than the general population.
Due to the natural challenges and demands on their mental wellbeing this is not surprising and in fact can be seen in many other creative freelance industries such as acting, journalism, architecture and design, just to name a few. Despite this being such a pressing issue in these industries there are studies that believe creators are less likely to succumb to mental disorders due to the livelihood of their work
Psychiatrist Philippe Brenot states, “Geniuses have a sort of balance because of their creative work. They will create a work that keeps mental illness at bay”. It is dismissive to place composers under a banner seeing only the ‘good’ of their work. Yes, composing is emotionally and intellectually rewarding being a unique and enjoyable profession but like all jobs it has its collection of pressures as an industry that expects so much of them to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. How do they know when to stop?
When practising music in different forms, the subjectivity to wavering mental health differs with the type of music involvement. For those practicing music as a hobby, the industry pressures are not present and therefore the individual is not controlled by the professional standards, instead a personal standard which can create individual mental struggles. Beyond Blue’s article ‘Instruments and well-being’ depicts that learning an instrument teaches mindfulness reducing stress and anxiety, whilst increasing neural plasticity. It is important to understand the two sides of music, acknowledging all external uses but recognising there are negative connections. This includes when one begins to monetise their efforts.
Simply put, “the creatives are vulnerable because it’s a passion… It’s a very unprotected industry”. Research has shown the industry to be excessively cruel, exploitative and often unpleasant, which brings the follow up question of, why do it? When considering financial and experiential precarity, alongside damaging cultural norms and working conditions, is it really worth it? The answer many have said and will continue to say is yes.
Weighing the pros and cons, being a composer, a creative facilitator, has an abundance of rewarding qualities, it can just be said that access to support services and information regarding mental health should be more readily available and taught. In a study concerning the work in the Australian entertainment industry, respondents were asked what the barriers were to seeking support. Most said they did not know where to look, they wouldn’t be able to afford such services or even when they did need help, it would potentially jeopardise future work opportunities.This strengthens the need for mental health in the entertainment industry to be addressed and for conversation to start.
Mental health and wellbeing are important aspects of being a composer of any kind and various organisations are beginning to acknowledge that. The Australian Guild of Screen Composers dedicates a page to health and wellbeing providing statistics, challenges faced by people in the music industry and barriers for seeking help that can lead to a decline in mental health. From providing helplines, facts on particular mental illnesses and links to recent research, it offers those in the industry who are struggling a point of help and for those who are interested in pursuing the industry an insight of potential happening, preparing them for outcomes that sadly most likely will occur, so they know where to go for help and that help is readily available.
This type of information should be more commonly known and taught for those interested in the industry as far too many people are suffering at a point in their career where for most there is no such thing as recovery. Not to say it is a waste, but a great disappointment to an industry where artists cannot maintain a healthy lifestyle, where everyone is almost expected to fail, and it comes to no surprise when one does. This must change as it is affecting too many people and at whose cost? Suicide alone in the entertainment industry is more than twice as high as the general public. When considering the types of jobs, those who entertain the general public considered the possibility of suicide up to seven times more and road crew members contemplated taking their own life almost nine times more than the general population. These statistics are disgusting and prove that there is work that needs to be done. Dialogue needs to begin, and help needs to be offered. Something needs to change and fast.
Through the study of composers throughout the years, it is apparent that not much has changed when it comes to mental health problems. From low and irregular income, competitive landscape, physical strain and the working environment, these factors are just a few of the challenges faced everyday by those working in the entertainment industry. Leading health problems of anxiety, depression, alcoholism and suicide remain the top four issues that arise in majority of composers in their lifetime. Reasons of stigma, lack of awareness, resources and support, act as barriers for those seeking help. With the plethora of music education courses, there needs to be a concerted effort to embed mental health within the curriculum to ensure students are aware of the challenges they may face so they can take appropriate preparatory steps.
It is a disservice to young individuals if we do not acknowledge the potentially dangerous environment within they seek to forge their careers. For those currently in the industry, support must be more readily accessible and known about as in the current climate we cannot continue to believe that everything is okay. Conversation must be stimulated within the music industries about the dangers those working within it may face and it is through this open dialogue that we can seek to achieve a more supportive and healthy work environment for all those involved.