music, mental health and counselling for musicians in these virus times‘’My fiancé and I are both musicians and we have both lost all of our work indefinitely. We’re really frightened, what are we supposed to do? When will this come to an end?’’

This is a story all too common in this current climate. Both friends and clients are finding themselves in a situation of uncertainty and fear. For some in the creative industries, their time is planned eighteen months in advance. Nobody knows when this situation is going to improve, and nobody knows what the future holds professionally. 

Within the current crisis, the need for therapy among the creative industries is growing, and therapists may find themselves contacted by industry professionals seeking mental health support. It’s so important the people who are struggling mentally know where to go and can access these services. 

*Sara, an oboe player from Leeds came to me with anxiety due to the pandemic:

‘’I got a call last week from the MD saying that for the foreseeable future, we have cancelled all concerts and engagements completely. We had a tour coming up in August and we have no idea whether we’ll be able to do this. For me, this is six month’s wages that I cannot afford to lose. I have family and friends to worry about and the reality that any of us could get it at any time. Then, this happens. I am so worried. I am having panic attacks and just randomly not feeling I can breathe. I literally have no idea what I’m going to do.’’

For many individuals within the creative industries, the current situation has dealt a colossal blow for finances. Allowing clients to talk about this uncertainty and talk through how they will manage this will be significant work. Joe C a Stage Manager based in Manchester talked about the absolute devastation around uncertainty for his financial future:

‘’I use the phrase “since everything stopped” because that’s exactly what it feels like. On the 15th March I was told by my PAYE employer that there would be no shows until further notice and all staff were no longer needed. This effectively meant that I was staring at zero income for the foreseeable future. For myself, being a zero hours contractor, it was a feeling of dread that filled the first ten days where there was no communication from my employers. As a freelancer, being left in suspense about what no work would mean for me, approaching the busiest time season of the year became a daily exercise in controlling my emotions. Having lived through the past ten years of Conservative government and seeing just how recklessly brutal the benefits system could be I felt at the mercy of a government I knew to be callous and non-caring. The only way I could deal with it effectively was to continue to tell myself that “there’s nothing I can do about this” so in some way a change in perspective gave me breathing room and a method to keep going day to day.

I attended therapy years ago and the 18 weeks spent doing sessions thankfully gave me the tools I needed to be able to manage difficult times better. It’s these tools which have given me so much help in having a career in the creative industries possible. Without them I’ve no doubt I would not be where I am today, or indeed, actually here at all.

The utter relief I felt when government measures were introduced for zero hours staff and freelancers/self-employed, I admittedly let my emotions come to the surface. Because I needed to. I believe that I’ve become battle hardened to the realities of working in the creative industry, but I’m not invulnerable. Without the support of therapy and people being able to express themselves at times of overwhelming stress would, in my mind, leave a sad legacy of careers and lives cut short by the sometimes-immeasurable pressures felt by workers in creative industries. Immeasurable pressures which adversely seem to affect those without the financial support networks at times of want.’’

Like Sara, Lydia,* a professional classical musician is trying to stay positive whilst navigating through the shock and horror at having her work cancelled and being left with no income or creative outlet for the foreseeable future. 

‘Music, along with dance, are in my opinion, the great communicators. Wherever you live and whatever your native language, music can talk to you and bring people together. One of the greatest pleasures of having a job in a symphony orchestra is the ability of communicating to audiences through the performance; move them, support them and help them.

Therefore, through these very strange and limiting times, we need live music more than ever. Having to stay 2 metres apart from each other however, proves this to be impossible so playing/performing with an orchestra is one of those unnecessary luxuries at the moment. If I’m being honest, it feels like someone has taken part of my soul away. It’s a mental and physical emptiness. I can thankfully play alone at home and open windows for my neighbours to, (hopefully), enjoy but the unity, warmth, joy and togetherness of producing that symphony orchestra sound is eerily silent for now. I am appreciating the extra time with my husband and 9-year-old son. The board games, baking, crafts, walks and listening to my son play his trumpet, are allowing me to rediscover small pleasures.

These are, without doubt, very difficult times for everyone but there will be light at the end of the tunnel to greet us eventually. In my world, I know that live symphony orchestras will be back doing what we do best with our welcoming, warm hug before too long.’’

As explained, Lydia is discovering basic joys of life that she felt she had not had time for in recent years. As within Sara’s session, staying with the feeling of anxiety can be really important and allowing the client to really feel that within the session, discussing their fears and how they see the future could be invaluable. But also helping them think about any positives around the situation. Are there new opportunities to try a new skill? A possibility for variety, to deliver services in a different way. 

I spoke with Pete Wilson, Guitarist for Steve Ignorant’s Slice of Life who summed up the uncertainty around his future and the affects this has had on him over the weeks.

‘Like many musicians around the world at the moment I have seen my plans thrown into uncertainty due to the current situation. The band I’m in had been planning a UK and European tour for the last two years. The dates were booked, all the logistics were sorted out thanks to the very hard work of our manager and we were raring to go. Now, understandably, we’ve had to postpone the UK dates, the festivals have been cancelled and the dates that are currently still scheduled to go ahead could be pulled depending on the developments.

I fully understand that a large amount of people around the world will have had to make sacrifices because of the current situation. I also want to highlight that nothing is more important than the world getting through this crisis, but it has been a very difficult few weeks. So much time and effort had been put into what we were going to do, and it is very unsettling not knowing if we can actually accomplish what we set out to do. Having said all that, if the gigs do go ahead because the world has managed to pull through this dark time together, it will be the most amazing feeling I can imagine. So much more satisfying because we have all made it through. We all just have to be strong and be patient for the foreseeable future.’

A lot of the issues at the moment amongst the creative industries and mental health will be around loss and grieving what they have essentially lost in the present and how this will affect their future, what life will be like without their work, their friends, their creative outlet and financial stability. They may never get back the opportunity they had to do a particular gig, show, whatever it may be that they were holding on to and relying on for their financial and mental wellbeing.

Fellow counsellor within the music industry, Chula Goonewardene MBACP and Clinical Consultant & Psychotherapist provides an excellent account of how this crisis is affecting his Music Industry clients: 

‘My specialism is providing Counselling & Psychotherapy to clients with addictive disorders, in particular; those within the music industry, due to my history of addiction/recovery and my previous career as a musician.

The current COVID-19 situation hinges upon the fact that our forced isolation, loss of work for crew members/record company employees/artists and musicians, and the accompanying drastic lifestyle changes, push us; not only into a place of significantly limited access to our usual support networks and familiar working environments and patterns, but very likely; into increased proximity to partners and family members which creates an amplification of all the interpersonal systemic dynamics. What I am seeing in almost all of my clients, addicts and non-addicts, is that the underlying issues grown from difficult or dysfunctional maternal and/or paternal dynamics, are being exacerbated by our current situation and manifesting in various forms, most usually as; transference projections onto those they are living with, heightened negative projection and catastrophising, disproportionate responses and reactions, and/or a clamouring for safety and security, especially where finances are threatened.

My therapeutic work with music industry clients pre-COVID-19 often found a mirroring of these processes when people came off-tour, and supports the notion that the escapist bubble that touring provides, can mask the more difficult elements of the human condition, as I think we are all now having our existential angst and unconscious material being triggered by this most unusual set of circumstances.

It is imperative that we do not underestimate the power of this to create schism in our families, communities and society, as our usual comfort blankets get taken away, and we are forced to adapt to the consequences of a tyrannical viral pandemic.

One thing that remains constant however; before, during and after COVID-19, is that

communication, connection, loving kindness and support, provide much of the solution to us coping with this global crisis on an interpersonal level, and alongside what I have described

above, I have also witnessed my music industry clients extending compassion to those around them, due to the delicate nature of their closed environments and the heightened emotions that we mirror in each other, giving rise to undeniable empathy.

It has also warmed me to see the mobilisation of online support networks, such as the UK Touring Crew and UK Live Event Freelancers Facebook groups, the 12 Step fellowships, and the general offering of health and well-being support, such as; therapy, training, yoga, etc. for little or no cost. This mutual aid is vital for us now, as it will enable everyone to nurture themselves and each other, so that we can all survive this tragedy, with our minds, our hearts, our relationships and our careers; solid, intact and flourishing.’

Helpmusicians have set up a website specifically for the Coronavirus outbreak to support the creative industries: website which they’ve set up in collaboration with a number of industry partners as a central resource for information, advice and support for musicians through the crisis. There is an extensive section on health included on the site which is designed to signpost people to services and sources of help and support including mental health. There is also Music Minds Matter for anyone working in the music industry who might need a listening ear or more during an extremely difficult period.

*Some names have been changed at the request of the contributors. 

Rachel Jepson is a musician and BACP registered Counsellor and Supervisor specialising in working within the Music Industry. She developed and provides the only CPD accredited course in Mental Health Awareness In The Music Industry and her book Mental Health In The Music Industry: A Guide is available to buy on Amazon now. Proceeds go to music charities. 

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