As we embark on Mental Health Awareness Month this May, take a look at some views on mental health from the perspective of students, luthiers and players

14458_screenshot20190726at12.52.23_848832 © Jan Breckwoldt

© Jan Breckwoldt

’Music can be a refuge for children who are experiencing a mental health issue’

As for practical evidence of the benefits of music training for young people’s mental health, string teachers point to the experience of seeing how learning an instrument can build resilience, impulse control and self-discipline in children and increase their self-esteem and confidence; how regular lessons and practising can provide stability and structure; how music can be a refuge for children who are experiencing a mental health issue; and how orchestras and ensembles give students the opportunity to make social connections. But there is also acknowledgement of the complexity of mental health, and external factors such as a child’s environment, parents and peers. Teachers recognise that studying a stringed instrument to a high level can also bring its own pressures, and that this is an area that requires sensitive handling.

Violin teacher Deborah Harris, who founded and heads the North London Conservatoire, a Colourstrings programme with around 1,200 students, says that music training can be a refuge and a centring or stabilising activity for children who are experiencing mental health issues or personal trauma. ‘Some of the children who have had mental health problems use music as a refuge – from other people, or even from their own negative thoughts. Some children might be too anxious to go to any other group at school or outside school, but are happy to come to lessons and orchestra. Music can also provide enormous stability to children who are experiencing problems at home, for example a divorce, or the illness or death of a parent.’

‘There is still a huge stigma for people to speak out and say, “I have a mental illness”’

Me2/ is an orchestral organisation created to support individuals with mental illness, and was co-founded in 2011 by Ronald Braunstein, whose promising career as a world-class conductor was derailed by bipolar disorder. It operates several orchestras and chamber groups in the US, and around half of the musicians involved have a mental illness diagnosis. The organisation’s mission is to erase the prejudice surrounding mental illness, and Margie Friedman, one of the two film-makers behind Orchestrating Change, says: ‘There is still a huge stigma for people to speak out and say, “I have a mental illness.” People are afraid of being judged. But the Me2/ musicians have a sense of acceptance among each other. They are more comfortable sharing because they know they’re not going to be judged. The people in the orchestra who don’t have a diagnosis are incredibly supportive of the people who do ‒ which reflects the whole idea of the orchestra being a model for how society could function.’

‘Depression, for example, can accompany physical disease or illness because those physical issues place limits on what we can get done at the bench.’

Focusing on lutherie’s physical challenges without addressing mental health also ignores the fact that, as Cossmann Cooke points out, mental illness is often comorbid with chronic physical conditions: ‘Depression, for example, can accompany physical disease or illness because those physical issues place limits on what we can get done at the bench.’ He adds: ‘As in larger society, there are also folks in the trade who have mental health issues such as anxiety but also have attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or are on the autism spectrum. These people face challenges on two fronts.’

One maker and restorer who has OCD and anxiety explains: ‘There are different flavours of OCD but what I struggle with is checking things, so I’ll keep asking myself, “Is that glue pot shut off?” or, “Is that clamp too tight?” When I’m working in a shop, I’ll try not to be the last one to leave for the day, so I don’t have the responsibility of checking everything is switched off. It can become difficult for me as a maker and restorer to let go and move on to the next step. Instead of seeing that I’ve achieved a professional result, I feel as if I have to keep trying to make things better.’

’Meditation as a simple relaxation exercise is easy to learn, with just a little gentle discipline’

We are fortunate that there are extensive resources to draw on by way of literature, online information and advice which assist, boost and maintain our mental health and wellbeing. The usual suggestions offered by health experts include maintaining a healthy diet, not overdoing the alcohol, and keeping optimal sleep patterns. In addition there are a few strategies that have been particularly helpful and beneficial for me. 

• Literature. Most violin makers are very analytical and observant, and may find peace and assurance through gaining insight, understanding and practical application of psychological principles. There are many fine books available on psychology and I have greatly appreciated the work of Martin Seligman and Richard Winter.

• Mindfulness meditation. This has been proven to reduce levels of anxiety and mild depression. Meditation as a simple relaxation exercise is easy to learn, with just a little gentle discipline. I have found, when practised regularly, that a short morning and evening session is very rewarding. 

• Yoga. Reduced flexibility and poor posture are potential problems for violin makers as they spend year after year hunched over the bench. I have found great benefit from regular yoga classes that help to focus and energise the mind, and maintain good flexibility, posture and strength. Some years ago I had the privilege of spending time with Yehudi Menuhin. I was struck by how he, as a yoga practitioner, was so sprightly and vital. 

• Social life. There are many clubs and organisations to help enhance our social life and build skills. I have valued being a member of a local Toastmasters club, which provides a fun and supportive environment for members to develop communication techniques and improve social skills. 

• Spirituality. Cultivating the spiritual side of one’s life is also a valuable pursuit. I find it significantly broadens my perspective on my ultimate place and purpose. It helps to prevent my taking violin making and myself too seriously and promotes the goal of serving others.

’Conservatoires in the UK are responding to a rising demand for counselling services by putting more resources into mental health support’

Conservatoires in the UK are responding to a rising demand for counselling services by putting more resources into mental health support, and developing more integrated strategies for addressing health and wellbeing. The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), which in January 2019 appointed Sara Ascenso, a clinical psychologist and trained pianist, as its first lecturer in musicians’ health and wellbeing, has experienced a 20 per cent increase in requests for counselling since the start of the current academic year, compared with the equivalent period last year. At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, head of counselling Nick Barwick says the last two years have seen respectively 25 and 28 per cent of the student body requesting counselling services, and he expects the number to rise again this year. 

Barwick says there are no definitive answers to explain the increase in demand. ‘It’s increasing across the board in higher education institutions,’ he notes, ‘and that’s perhaps a sign of the general anxiety among young people. But the number of students seeking counselling in conservatoires is higher than in other institutions. I think one of the major reasons for this is that conservatoire students are being asked, either explicitly or implicitly, to use themselves in their training – to use their emotional life in order to perform.’