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There is a lot of interest in the Australian performing arts at the moment around improving individual and collective mental health and wellbeing, for the sake of career sustainability – and even sustainability and productivity within the Arts itself.
The rise of the ‘Protean career’ (think ‘portfolio’ career on steroids) adds to the imperative for arts organisations to adapt to changing needs. For a performing artist, for example, the Protean career involves proficiency in multiple skill sets within, and even beyond, the performing arts, including rehearsing, practising, teaching or coaching, social media promotion, publicity, project management and technology (ie editing, digital media). Such careers offer artists greater self-efficacy, flexibility and resilience, autonomy and sustainability.
Soprano Greta Bradman. Photo © Pia Johnson
Protean careers offer the Arts a flexible work-force, but increasingly necessitate their working harder to provide a rationale for good people to stick around. Organisations can use shared spaces, where creative people come together independent of current projects, to plan, create, talk, support one another, develop ideas and practice strategies designed to promote creativity, resilience and flourishing.
Recent studies by Entertainment Assist (surveying across the performing arts) and Queensland University (surveying musicians) as well as ongoing research by the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare have shown an imperative for organisations to support better mental health and wellbeing. Arts workers (including roadies, technical and administrative staff, ushers and caterers, as well as performers, conductors and musicians) have higher rates of mental health issues involving sleep (quality and quantity), substance abuse, excessive alcohol consumption, depression and anxiety. They are twice as likely to attempt suicide than the general population and five to seven times more likely to consider suicide.
Around 80 percent of performing arts workers earn less than the average wage and over 65 percent earn less than the minimum wage, despite 58 percent of musicians in the Queensland study working more than the recommended maximum 48 hours per week. Prevalence and severity of mental illness in the performing arts is not yet well understood; however, lifetime diagnosis of a mental illness appears on a par with the general population. The research suggests mental health problems are best predicted by working conditions in the industry, rather than by lifetime mental illness or predisposition. Many arts people are overworked, underpaid, feel undervalued and lack control over their destinies. That doesn’t bode well for sustainable careers or lives. In fact, I’d say it’s bloody remarkable that arts workers are doing as well as they are; a testament to their dedication and love for what they do.
Whilst research into mental health and wellbeing in the performing arts is still in its early stages, we know that engagement in performing arts during childhood predicts better school performance, engagement and mental health commensurate with the general population (Creative Victoria). Intervention studies from the US show that in the first two years of university, music students have higher levels of physical and psychological health than non-music students, but that by the end of their second year, “music related symptoms” emerge (including musculoskeletal complaints and psychological problems around performance anxiety and career pressure). Psychological problems were attributable to factors related to a classical music career, especially anxiety, performance pressure and high competition and standards. Targeted, group-based intervention during the first year prevented a second-year decline in health, especially mental health. Interestingly, students who did not receive the intervention were less likely, subsequently, to seek help for mental health issues and tended to consider mental health problems not amenable to change. Those in the intervention group were more likely to do better in early careers, in spite of there being no differences in demographics at the beginning of the study.
Mental health issues are not abnormal, nor uncommon. Modern psychotherapies will not stifle our creativity. It can involve our embracing feelings in the present moment and allowing them to run their course, rather than getting stuck in a loop that can lead to suffering where attention is monopolised at the expense of living in the present. Cultivating our ability to feel deeply and passionately, to create with vulnerability and individuality, is part of emotional agility and psychological flexibility; of leading a meaningful, fulfilling life. And in overcoming the instability of traditional performing arts careers, embracing a Protean approach may provide the flexibility, autonomy and creative potential to supercharge our careers and our part in the creative universe.