mental health provision in classical music

Christopher Gunness
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Chris Gunness explores the facts and figures relating to mental health in the music industry

The music industry can be a challenging place to work. A report by the UK’s Office of National Statistics found that between 2011 and 2015 the risk of suicide was 20% higher among men and 69% higher among women working in culture, media and sport-related jobs, compared with the rest of the workforce.

Many of the UK’s music and mental health charities are encouraging performing arts institutions to intensify efforts to combat mental illness and implement proactive policies. Their evidence is compelling. According to Help Musicians UK’s (HMUK) ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ report, commissioned in 2016, the music community may be up to three times more likely to experience depression than the general public. Over 70% of respondents had panic attacks and anxiety, and 68% said they suffered from depression. The British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) says 12% of those seeking their services had a history of psychiatric care and that half the callers to their helpline were classical musicians, mainly music students and freelancers.

 ‘Unmanageable levels of pressure’

It is not just performers who’ve been affected. A 2018 report commissioned by the concert promoter, Skiddle, looked at over 500 promoters, venue owners and event organisers. 65% of promoters reported ‘an intense and unmanageable’ level of pressure. Almost half the Skiddle respondents said their work in music led to a constant feeling of anxiety and sadness and 38% found working in promotion had affected their relationship with a partner or spouse.

HMUK’s ‘Can Music Make You Sick’ report identified perceived gaps in mental health service provision, with many respondents feeling under-served by available help. HMUK, along with groups such as BAPAM, the ISM, the Musicians’ Union and Music Support have moved to fill these gaps, offering a broad range of services, from 24-hour helplines, consultations with health professionals, counseling, mental health awareness training for example among staff at venues and signposting to services in the NHS.

Time to Change

Time To Change (TTC) – a mental health anti-stigma movement run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – campaigns to improve attitudes and behaviours around mental health. Over a thousand companies in the UK have signed their Employer Pledge, committing them to a plan of action. These include the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre and Sony Music.

‘But,’ says Karen Shaw, TTC’s employer engagement manager, ‘we are not seeing much interest from the world of classical music generally, ie from people in the industry contacting us and wanting to sign up. Given that the stigma of mental health can be even more damaging than the mental health illness itself, it makes absolute sense for the music industry to start changing the culture and opening up the conversation.’

That said, some classical music institutions are responding positively. The Royal Opera House (ROH) signed the TTC Employer Pledge in June last year, and according to Dominique Perrissin-Fabert, ROH’s Health and Safety manager, 11 ‘Time To Change champions’ have been appointed to organise awareness-raising events and ensure that team meetings include time to discuss mental health issues. This is in addition to a team of eleven consultants including physiotherapists, osteopaths, nutritionists and performance psychologists.

" Given that the stigma of mental health can be even more damaging than the mental health illness itself, it makes absolute sense for the music industry to start changing the culture and opening up the conversation. "

‘Already,’ she says, ‘14% of our 1100 staff have come forward with issues both mental and physical, which are deeply interrelated, particularly in the fields of ballet, opera and orchestral playing.’

‘Most importantly,’ says Jane Crowther, head of human resources at ROH, ‘we have introduced training for departments and managers on how to handle problematic conversations with employees. This is blazing a trail in creating a set of mental health values for the organisation.’

Southbank Centre signed the TTC employer pledge in February 2016 and is training staff at a cost of £800 per person. Nonetheless, says Alison Lodge, director of human resources at Southbank, ‘some of the most effective initiatives are free, such as posters with photos of mental health first aiders, teatime talks and healthier snacks in vending machines.’

Holistic, proactive, not remedial

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) is a sector leader in embracing a less remedial approach. Peter Garden, who became the RLPO’s manager in 2015, initiated a ‘musicians’ wellbeing and performance programme’, which is ‘promoting physical and mental health in an environment where musicians can develop as artists over a career span, linking individual performance and personal aims to the wider objectives of the orchestra’.

‘There has been a huge cultural shift,’ says Garden. ‘We think of our musicians as premier league footballers. Not only did we bring in a sports physiotherapy company, we created a screening programme for all our players, creating risk profiles and specialist health programmes in order to move them, where necessary, from high to low risk. And unlike footballers with relatively short careers, we aim to sustain our musicians through careers that can last as long as 50 years.’

The RLPO is working with BAPAM to provide more specialist health support for its musicians. According to Garden, ‘this includes masseurs, who we take on tour, psychologists, physiotherapists and audiologists. We also have a coach who helps our players avoid the physical strains of performance and every player has a personal training budget.’ In addition, the RLPO is supporting a PhD programme at Liverpool John Moores University, looking specifically at injury among musicians.

Freelancers and the gig economy

BAPAM estimates that 85% of the music industry consists of freelancers, ‘many of whom are falling between the cracks’. Jo Laverty of the Musician’s Union argues they face multiple pressure points: ‘the lack of control over their schedule; inflexibility around time off; unsociable working hours; the stress of touring; noise levels; performance anxiety; maintaining artistic standards of excellence at all times, the possibility of injury… the list goes on.’

Confronting the underlying causes of mental health is therefore a priority. ‘The “gig economy”, in which short-term contracts of freelance work are prevalent, suffers from a lack of regulation,’ says Francesca Treadaway, spokesperson at the ISM. ‘There’s very little job security or access to holiday pay, no pension scheme, sick pay or maternity cover, and a lack of the protection and support mechanisms which are to be found in more traditional employment.’

Time for action

The Thriving at Work Report, commissioned by the British Prime Minister, showed the cost of poor mental health to the UK Economy to be between £74 and £99 billion a year, of which it is estimated between £33 and £42 billion is incurred by employers. However, according to research conducted by Deloitte, workplace interventions show an average return to business of £4.20 for every pound spent.

It is clear that investment in mental health by the classical music industry will pay rich dividends, and examples of good practice have shown how positive changes can be made to better support musicians and industry professionals. Moreover, the human cost of inaction will rise incalculably. Now, we must work together to ensure that these examples become the norm, and that the health and happiness of its employees are at the core of the industry’s concerns.


'Jobs with highest risk of suicide for men and women revealed’: The Independent, March 2017. ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’: Help Musicians UK, 2016. Skiddle Mental Health Survey, 2018,—over-80-of-promoters-report-problems/53346/ ‘Thriving at Work’ report: Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, 2017.