Culture journalist Anna Codrea-Rado helps us look into the impact of dialogue and conversation on the mental health of creatives in the music and arts industry.
While our news feeds may be littered with bizarre and pointless world days (stay tuned for the riveting INTERNATIONAL CAPS LOCK DAY, people), the 10th of October couldn’t be more deserving of its calendar slot. World Mental Health Day, established in 1992 for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma, is one of the few international holidays worth shouting about. Or in Catalyst’s case, dialoguing.
Bringing our voice to the World Mental Health Day conversation, culture journalist Anna Codrea-Rado recaps last year’s series of dBs Dialogues [now Catalyst Dialogues] mental health panel talks. Anna, who moderated our first event and has been following its journey ever since, writes extensively on harm reduction policies and youth culture. Taking the conversation outside of the Catalyst community, the one-stop journalistic piece touches on the key aspects of our ongoing discussion on mental health in the music industry. Read below.
Breaking Mental Health Taboos Starts With Dialogue
When Andrew Ferguson was in school, he struggled to concentrate. Reading was especially tough because he just couldn’t seem to focus on the text in front of him for long enough to take in what it said. Sitting exams was even worse – it felt like he was paralysed and couldn’t get the answers onto the paper.
His teachers blamed him for the poor grades that resulted from all this. “I was told I was stupid,” he says.
What Ferguson, who’s now a top electronic music producer who plays under the moniker Nomine, later came to understand that his smarts had nothing to do with his performance at school. It was his mental health.
“This was a time before learning difficulties and mental health were talked about,” he said. “I would freeze with anxiety but that didn’t mean I wasn’t intelligent.”
Changing attitudes through open conversations
The scale of mental health issues within the creative industries started coming to light in the last few years. The watershed moment was in 2016, when the UK-based music charity Help Musicians UK released the findings of a groundbreaking survey, “Can Music Make You Sick?”. The research found that 71% of respondents said they experienced anxiety and panic attacks. A further 65% reported they had suffered from depression.
“We saw a rise in calls in 2016 from people in crisis,” Christine Brown, director of external affairs at Help Musicians UK, says. “We felt that we could put mental health higher on the agenda and that there needed to be more evidence out there.”
The findings chime with what Hannah Deans, the events and student experience lead at Catalyst, has observed over the years at the school. “Anxiety is a big issue across the board,” Deans says. “It frequently comes up in conversations with the students.”
This need propelled the school to think about what else it could offer students in support of their wellbeing. Following a successful run of events last year built on the idea of open dialogue and a safe space to explore the most pressing issues facing emerging artists, staff set their attention on talking about mental health.
“Last year’s Dialogues programme was a four-part series of panel events on the topics that most educational institutes shy away from talking about”
Last year’s Dialogues programme was a four-part series of panel events on the topics that most educational institutes shy away from talking about. These included drugs and harm reduction, living with others with mental health conditions, the pressures of the industry and the myth of the tortured artist.
“The idea to have these conversations was to try to put it out there,” Deans says. “It’s a difficult and complex subject and it affects everyone.”
Brown says that speaking up is the first step to breaking the taboo. “Conversation is really important,” she says. “It’s the starting point for any type of issue, but especially mental health.”
The series was welcomed by the students, who turned out in droves for the events. “It opens that gate for discussion, which might not have been open otherwise,” Fergus, a music production student who spoke on the panel on living with others, says. “The talks are very open and are a way for people to think differently and think, ‘Ok, maybe I need some help’.”
A quiet revolution in Berlin
As one of the most progressive cities in Europe, Berlin is a hub for the creative arts. It’s also a clubbing mecca. People come from far and wide to party all weekend in a city where pretty much anything goes.
“There’s no one making rules for you,” Ellie, a Catalyst music production student, asserts. “If you went out in London, the clubs would close at three and you would have to go home. In Berlin, it’s all based on people disciplining themselves.”
This laidback attitude to late-night antics can take its toll. The UK-based mental health charity Mind says on its website that all drugs have some kind of effect on your mental health. They also say that if you have a history of poor mental health, you may be more likely to experience negative effects with illegal drugs.
A survey of Catalyst students from earlier this year about harm reduction awareness found that 90% of the respondents had taken recreational drugs. Nearly all the survey respondents said they would like to see drug testing stations in clubs in Berlin. Only half, however, feel safe approaching club staff if they needed help.
Aware of the scale of the issue, Catalyst kicked off the 2018 Dialogues series with a frank discussion about drugs and harm reduction. Panelists talked openly about the Berlin clubbing scene, when partying becomes a problem, and what the wider music community can do to help foster better conversations around drug use.
One of the issues raised during the session was the pressure burgeoning artists can feel to go out because, for them, clubbing is part of the lifestyle. As a touring artist, Ferguson says there’s a big difference between partying and the professional side of nightlife.
“A survey of Catalyst students from earlier this year about harm reduction awareness found that 90% of the respondents had taken recreational drugs”
“I don’t remember ten years of touring because I was just drinking and living what I thought to be the lifestyle,” he says. “I got confused with what I was supposed to be doing and the party side of things.”
A native of Finland, music production student Sofie was used to much smaller cities and a more conservative nightlife scene. As she prepares to enter the industry, she says it’s important to remember what you’re in Berlin to achieve. “When I first came to Berlin, my thought was it’s a sink or swim city,” she says. “If you don’t have that goal you’re working towards, then you’re going to sink into the party scene and lose yourself in it.”
Self-care starts at school
A theme the Dialogues series kept returning to was the need for creative professionals to practise self-care. Mind advocates the use of self-care techniques and lifestyle changes in order to help manage the symptoms of mental health problems. The charity says they may help prevent some problems from developing or getting worse.
Sofie says she’s been practising self-care for a number of years now and finds it helpful in maintaining good mental health. She eats well, practices yoga, makes sure to get out of the house and plays the violin. “The other day I was feeling low and knew I had to practise the violin but didn’t want to,” she says. “But those are the moments when you do really need to do it.”
Taking care of yourself is the first step on a journey to maintaining good mental health hygiene. In the Dialogues discussion on living with others, the analogy was used of putting one’s own oxygen mask on first as an example of how it’s important to look after one’s own needs before helping others.
The students also agree that it comes down to the individual to first recognise they are struggling and then to seek help. “There’s not much you can really do until someone wants to get help for themselves,” Fergus says. “It’s something that you need to want to do yourself.”
For the students who do need help, there are services available to them at Catalyst. The school offers an English-language Skype counselling service and is able to assist students in finding local mental health treatment.
As of this academic year, students also have access to one-on-one counselling services with a music industry-experienced professional. “Having someone who is not just a trained counsellor but who also has in-depth knowledge of the pressures of the music industry is hugely beneficial for providing guidance for the students,” Deans says.
“Taking care of yourself is the first step on a journey to maintaining good mental health hygiene”
Knowing they have access to these services, the students say they feel supported at the school. “It’s very positive what they’re doing,” Ellie says. “It’s a really good community.”
The director and founder of Catalyst, David Puttick, says the ethos of the school is for students to feel they are part of a network of support. “We’re building a community focused on learning,” he says. “It’s the most important thing you can provide, particularly for an international school.”
With a student body made up from all corners of the globe, community is a top priority. “It’s being together and supportive, building networks and friendships, having people there for you when you’re struggling,” Puttick says.
The industry needs to do more
Over the last few years, a number of high-profile artists opened up about their mental health struggles. Last year, UK-based producer Ben Pearce wrote a personal essay about his struggle with depression. Dubstep producer Benga spoke out about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And DJs have talked about the pressures of touring on their mental wellbeing.
Ferguson, who is vocal about his own mental health journey, thinks it’s great to see artists speaking out. “People see me being proactive and achieving things, it’s a good thing,” he says. “Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you can’t achieve what you want. You might just have to go about it a different way.”
This starts with education. Any university experience should be a safe testing ground preparing its students for the working world. For the creative arts industries, this means getting students ready for the rigours of a rapidly changing industry in which new opportunities are opening up all the time.
Technology has thrown the music industry wide open, as streaming platforms and cloud-based production tools have democratised who gets to become a musician. While on the one hand this means access to the music industry is more open than ever, the competition is also more fierce. Increasingly, budding producers and performers need to have a business mind in order to navigate what is becoming an industry in which a DIY attitude can get you ahead.
“Professionalising speaking, what you do as a creative entrepreneur actually will alleviate some of the stress that can take its toll,” Brown from Help Musicians says. A key finding of the charity’s survey was that unsociable hours and irregular employment can cause stress for musicians that may result in mental health concerns.
“Increasingly, budding producers and performers need to have a business mind in order to navigate what is becoming an industry in which a DIY attitude can get you ahead”
As experts now agree that money worries are often linked to mental health, taking proactive steps to look after one’s finances can be a great help. “It’s important to plan your time between making music in the studio and then making sure that you leave time for the business side – for promotions, for connecting with people,” Brown says.
The final panel session to round off the Dialogues series was on the role the industry plays. Panelists discussed how the industry can create a better environment for its future artists and creative practitioners. “These are the people entering the music industry,” Deans says. “If they’re more open, conscious of the risks, they can actively engage in methods to manage it and be stronger in their ability to say what they deserve. Then the industry itself will start to change.”