Mental Health Awareness Week is almost over, but we don’t want that to be the end of the conversation! Very often, performers (and teachers!) are wary about saying anything publicly, because performers in particular work in an over-populated industry, and the fear is that if we admit to having problems, we render ourselves unhirable and undesirable.
“Oh, you’ve got depression / anxiety / bi-polar? (delete where applicable, other issues are available…) OK. Well there are forty other equally talented people in the queue just behind you, who we’ll be auditioning later. Of course, our decision to hire them over you will have nothing to do with your mental health issues – you just weren’t right for the job this time.”
The fact is, mental health problems are commonplace in the performing arts industries, and we all know it. Maybe it’s a personality thing. Maybe it’s the job insecurity. Maybe it’s the unrelenting pressure. Probably all three. But it’s definitely a thing.
Anyway, Voice College Teamster (and advocate of open-ness in the mental health debate) Mark James has this to say on the subject, as Mental Health Awareness week draws to a close for 2019:
As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, I feel it only right to ponder not only on the types of mental health but also the ways that music can help treat them too.
No matter what politicians say, or how much bluster and back patting they give themselves with grand statements about “the biggest ever investment into mental health services” (As the Prime Minster Stated this week at PMQ’s) mental health on the NHS is a seriously underfunded department.
If we were to have a physical illness that you could see through a microscope, or even just by looking at a person, as the biggest killer of a large section of the population, the outcry would be so big that money would be thrown at it. However, make this an illness that you cannot see and only the person that is going through can feel, then all of a sudden, we are more hesitant and only in recent years has this become highlighted.
Now please bear with me for the next part of this, as I know awareness is important in changing our perceptions of anything. However, I do also feel at the moment that awareness has to be coupled together with reality. There is a random buzz phrase bandied about these days, for mental health, the phrase is ‘ It’s OK not to be OK’ – which it is. We are then made to feel that all you have to do is admit that you need help and that you are able to just go out and ask at the doctors and you will automatically be put in front of a mental health professional. The reality is that it can take a long time for this to happen, many visits to the doctors and a significant decrease in your well-being. Until that point you are managed with medication and therapy is mainly accessed through private clinics. Although it is great to see Prince Williams and Prince Harry talking about how they dealt with their problems by talking to professionals, unfortunately, at £40 – £60 an hour on average, this is completely out of the reach of most working people.
Even for those that have serious trauma to deal with the process is still hard to get the help you need from. I am ashamed to say that this even goes in the cases of such things as rape victims, PTSD suffers, domestic violence victims and more. The first stage is always medication. And then these people’s need are seen as too complex, or they need too much one-to-one help for anything on the NHS. Charities such as Mind and Relate are amazing and will often try to reduce the costs for their services, however, they still have to charge for their services too. The long and short of it is that Mental Health has a rich man’s cure.
Or does it?
I have made no secret of my battles with mental health issues over the years. I am happy to talk about the way depression and anxiety can make you feel from my experiences and also talk to others about their experiences too. I am not, and do not claim to be a mental health professional, so all my advice is purely based on my own experiences – what has helped me and people that I have spoken to.
I often say there is a point that everyone gets to which is the same for everyone, but the lead-up and then the way you go after that is unique to the person that is going through it. It is this point that I am happy to talk about, as those who have not been through anything like this can struggle to understand what it is like. It is also worth noting that we talk about mental health and everyone thinks depression and anxiety, but it comes in many forms, including eating disorders and addictions to name but two. I, however, centre on the depression side, as this is the area I feel I am able to talk about with knowledge.
Maybe it is best at this point to describe as best I can what depression can feel like. I described it in this way to my girlfriend the other day as we were driving to London on the M3:
It is like you are in a car driving on the motorway in the middle lane. The car that you are driving does not have a radio player, it does not have any other passengers – it is just you. The scenery is just rows and rows of trees that you can see over, and the tarmac is all one colour. The only noise it the dull rumble of the car’s wheels.
When you look around you see other cars travelling past you. there are people on phones, laughing and joking with families, they have windows open letting in air, they are eating sweets and having a good time, but they can’t see you. They can open their windows and talk to each other as they drive, but you try, and either cannot match the speed they are travelling at or you just can’t open your window. And then at times, you become so lonely, and jealous of everyone else around you, and feeling so isolated from the other drivers all the time that the only way that you can stop all this is to yank on the steering wheel and drive directly into the road barriers.
Depression is not sadness, it is loneliness, devoid of feeling and being numb. It is a feeling that you are a burden to everyone around you and that you not being here would be better for everyone else around you.
So why have I written this blog if there is no hope at all? Well, there is, but we have to step away from just thinking that help is only going to come from medical forms. We are talking about the sickness of the brain now. The area of your body that can be stimulated in more ways by the tiniest whisper than your arm would from a punch from a heavyweight boxer.
So how do we free the mind? we give it something else to immerse itself in. For example, before reading this sentence you weren’t thinking about the weight of your arms on your shoulders and how they can drag you down, Or the fact that your toes are touching something around you, you didn’t feel the seat that you are sitting on resting against your bum, and even in a sentence you have gone away from thinking about the weight of your arms again on your shoulders until I mentioned it.
So how does this apply to mental health? How can we remove ourselves from an immovable feeling? How do we shut our brain down for just a little while?
When teaching singing, one of the things that you can do with a student who over-thinks the song or technique too much is to distract one side of the brain with a simple task. Juggling or bounding a ball, playing with a fidget spinner, or even conducting an imaginary orchestra in front of you tricks your logical thinking side of the brain into doing a task and allows the more creative side to come out and play. It really works too. So, what if we apply this to mental health?
In my darkest moments my mind would be thinking a million dark thoughts at the same time. However, putting on a song and singing along distracted those thoughts for a while; it opened up my creative side and also gave me rushes of joy to be doing something I loved. I would get so caught up in the music that everything else just disappeared for a little while.
The arts have this power as they stimulate you in a way that your brain will find infectious. For a few minutes or hours, you can escape from the prison inside of your head and just lose yourself. This could be painting, acting, singing, playing a musical instrument or even reading a book. It isn’t a cure, but it is a place to find rest from yourself for a bit.
There are free helplines that you can contact if you need immediate help. Click here on this link for a list of free phone numbers https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/
Time 4 Change Mental Health Charter
At The Voice College, we signed up to the Time 4 Change Mental Health Charter back in 2016, and we recommend that your organisation does too. As its founder, Annemarie Lewis Thomas says, it’s free, and it’s easy to do. Why wouldn’t you?
We actively support our students if we know that they are experiencing difficulties, and we encourage them to communicate those difficulties to us! We are not mental health professionals, but if we know that something is affecting a student’s capacity to study or to hit deadlines, we can do something about it in the sense of, for example, adjusting timetables, and in just letting them know that we’re behind them.
The charter is placed in every student’s private study room, and it’s a great starting place for people who are experiencing problems but don’t necessarily know where to go to start getting some help. Here’s the file: mental_health_charter_time4change
But don’t just take our word for it – visit the site and read all about it for yourself! Be part of the change. It’s worth it.
We can also recommend that you visit The Balanced Performer
And have a read of this too – an article all about the ways in which being creative can help with mental health problems, just as Mark said, above! VAE_Restoring_the_Balance
Finally, you can explore our extensive collection of self-hypnosis downloads. The downloads are inexpensive, and can really help when it comes to controlling your symptoms. They’ve been created by healthcare professionals with extensive experience in their field and there are literally thousands to choose from! We use them ourselves, and can vouch for their effectiveness. Are they a cure? No. But they’re a great addition to your coping strategies.
So please, talk to your students, your friends, your family, your colleagues. Share this information. And keep the conversation alive.