A study by Help Musicians UK suggests 71% of musicians suffer anxiety and 69% experience depression.

A major new study coming out of the UK suggests that although music is widely credited as a panacea for many of our mental woes, the same cannot be said for its effect on musicians themselves. Help Musicians UK, a leading charity supporting British music makers, has commissioned a survey of 2,211 practitioners and the results make for pretty uncomfortable reading.

This new research, conducted by a team from the University of Westminster, is entitled Music and Depression (MAD) and is the largest survey of its kind carried out in the UK to date. The most worrying statistic is that 68.5% of respondents reported that they had suffered from depression at some time in their career while 71.1% believed that they had experienced panic attacks or high levels of anxiety. That puts musicians a startling three times more likely to be depressed than members of the general public.

The survey also sought reasons for this level of mental ill-health within the industry, findings which should be of interest for both musicians and their managements. They range from poor working conditions – anti-social hours, exhaustion and an inability to plan for the future – a lack of recognition for one’s work, the physical stresses of playing and sexist behaviour or even sexual harassment. For the purposes of the research, respondents self-identified as having ‘mental health’ issues ranging from anxiety to depression and bi-polar, and researchers did not attempt to medically verify these conditions, although many referred to themselves as having been hospitalised in the past.

“The romantic rhetoric of the tortured musician is embedded in the Western history of popular music, from classical composers including Schumann, Mahler and Rachmaninov through to the enduring myth of tragic rock stars, such as Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Hendrix,” say the report’s authors. “However, attempts at mapping the emotional and psychological wellbeing of musicians working and seeking to forge careers within the music industry have largely been absent, with arguments often rooted in an unhelpful, individualistic and dismissive pathologisation of creative or affective labour.”

The survey looked at all musical genres, but each of rock, pop and classical occupied over a quarter of those sampled. Although nearly 40% of those questioned came from the nation’s capital, there were respondents from all over the UK, and the majority of those asked felt that there was inadequate mental support on offer across the industry no matter where they were based.

The survey also looked at four case studies, with British concert pianist James Rhodes as its representative in the classical sphere. Although Rhodes, with his well-publicised history of sexual abuse and drug-taking may seem an extreme example, he did have some salient observations. “The worst things are the loneliness and the pressure – constant pressure I put on myself,” he says. “It doesn’t really come from outside. I’m not really worried about the critics or the press. I feel like I have to live up to a certain standard otherwise it’s not good enough… And nerves of course can be challenging as well… Also you’ve got to be really careful when you’re doing something that’s so personal, and you’re exposing yourself in that way to criticism and abuse and whatever.”

MAD’s brief was to hear directly from professional musicians, aspiring musicians, and workers within the wider music industry, about how they feel about their working conditions, and how they perceive working in the music industry to affect their mental wellbeing. As such, it is the first part of a two-part process, the next step being to delve deeper into existing issues and explore a range of solutions. It is hoped that the results will be released sometime in 2017.

“Whilst it is a widely held perspective that creating music attracts people with particular psychological tendencies,” admitted the report, “the message that came through in the survey was clear: music making is therapeutic, but making a career out of music is destructive. As one respondent succinctly stated: ‘The only thing that causes depression for musicians is the music industry itself’”.


Click here to download the full report from Help Musicians UK