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Music may heal others, but musicians, heal thyselves

Music may heal others, but musicians, heal thyselves

There is another side to this music and mental health conversation – the professional musician. Here, the debate takes a different turn. When music becomes a career choice, it transforms into a pressure cooker.

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Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 00:10 IST
Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 00:10 IST
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“Your music takes me to a different world, makes me forget all my troubles.”

“Your music changed my life, and helped me get through some of my lowest points.”

These are expressions of love and gratitude that musicians across the world would have received from fans. Researchers have for long talked about the connections between music and physical and mental health. Listening to, or learning, some form of music is said to result in emotional wellbeing. There are also critiques of these hypotheses, methodologies and the proposition that there is direct causality between music and mental health. Many people who work with individuals who suffer from trauma, anxiety, depression, autism and other mental health difficulties, vouch for the effectiveness of musical exposure, interaction and learning. All this needs further investigation.

For me, an outsider to the field of psychology and mental health, unanswered cultural and psychological questions remain. Which is why I took the help of my daughter Arya, who has a Master’s in Clinical Applications of Psychology, in framing this article. My sociological apprehension comes from a certain homogenisation of what is considered “music therapy”. More often than not, they seem to be those sounds that suit the social-elite’s musical palette. Furthermore, I am not sure how much of all this is more a “feel good” for the caregivers.

There is another side to this music and mental health conversation – the professional musician. Here, the debate takes a different turn. When music becomes a career choice, it transforms into a pressure cooker. Far from being beneficial for mental health, it becomes a trigger for emotional distress. There are innumerable stories of burn out, depression, drug abuse, self-harm, suicides or suicide attempts. Many names are that of superstars, some of whom have come out and spoken publicly about their struggles.

Those of us who do not belong to mega-music genres feel that this is not common in our domains. We connect these occurrences with art forms that are super popular, with tremendous media presence and money. We presume that musicians of other forms of music are largely immune to mental health struggles. And even if such cases emerge within our spheres of work, they are treated as aberrations, and we attribute personal reasons for them.

For practitioners of traditional musical forms who articulate their existence in spiritual terms or as divine accordance, the acceptance of mental health struggles becomes that much more difficult, because this truth brings into question that belief. How can the practice of such art forms lead to difficulties in mental health?

The reality is totally different. Musicians across the board are vulnerable. We are on stage, creating a personal and musical image, always being judged for our art and personal lifestyle, leading to a lack of privacy. We also carry the burden of folklore and myths. Fame itself takes a toll, as does the toxicity of social media. All musicians want to be successful and are constantly fighting off competition. When success comes our way, stress is accentuated. Wanting to remain at the top, the desperation to keep doing something different, fear of newer entrants, the desire for awards and to extend one’s own longevity precipitate the problem.

When artists fail to reach these dizzy levels, it is a very hard fall. They are also watching others climb the ladder and beat them in the race. Having given up everything else and put their heart and soul into becoming artists, they feel lost. It is in between these states of turmoil that music is being made. Musicians are at high risk for mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression.

Flatterers that we cultivate and the adulation we receive on stage are a perfect recipe for narcissism and self-absorption. Reality is altered because of this bubble, making it very difficult to see ourselves as imperfect. We are bestowed with, and bestow upon ourselves, unreal powers of musical healing and transcendence. We become our image and consequently the protection of that image becomes paramount. When we practice the classical arts, the image of the art form and our image merge and we lose ourselves to it. This leads to a great deal of personality suppression and even closeted shame.

There are other social pressures that are especially real to practitioners of art forms that inhabit a conservative social domain. People who are part of the queer community or have a non-conformist lifestyle have to hide their true selves. The fear that opportunities will be lost, reputation will be tarnished and their music maligned, forces concealment. Suspicions and rumours remain in the realm of doubt and society pushes it all aside as something we do not talk about. But open proclamation of sexual or gender fluidity is completely unacceptable because it stains the art’s puritanical image.

If I were to say that alcoholism and substance abuse are problems faced by almost all musicians irrespective of the type of music they perform, I will be accused of exaggeration. Despite the fact that there are many examples, it is not taken seriously. Sometimes, certain forms of addiction are brushed aside as cultural and community practice. For example, the chewing of tobacco is not considered wrong within certain circles. Musicians often chew through the day, and especially need to before and after a concert. Beyond the obvious danger of cancer, this addiction could also be an indicator of mental health issues. Add to all this the general lack of physical exercise among musicians, and you have a disaster in the making. In the long run, this has a detrimental effect on the music and the overall wellbeing of musicians. We notice musicians only until they remain popular. After their prime, many end up in depressive states or experience deteriorating health.

At the risk of readers thinking that I am sounding alarmist, let me end by making an appeal to musicians, their families and friends that seeking help from mental health professionals needs to be made a part of the support system we build around musicians. We also need to, as a society, normalise seeking help. Connoisseurs, on their part, have to stop placing musicians on a pedestal and be sensitive and respectful of their privacy.

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