We need to talk about mental health

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Mental health. It’s a subject that still has a lot of social stigma around it. We don’t like talking about it. It makes us feel uncomfortable, vulnerable. This is despite the fact that, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 6 people will have experienced some sort of mental health problem in the past week. It’s especially important for us, as students, to be talking about it as UK universities are currently going through a mental health crisis with record numbers of students experiencing mental health difficulties, possibly as a result of increasing financial burdens, work pressure and substance abuse.

You might be thinking, “That’s all very interesting, but what on earth does it have to do with music?” Mental health and music have had a long and complex relationship. Various studies have shown how the music we listen to has a profound effect on our mood. Music is a way to express feelings that we can’t otherwise communicate. It’s inherently linked to how we view both ourselves and the world around us.

With the rise in interest in mindfulness techniques, music is being recognised as an effective way to cope with the difficulties associated with disorders such as depression and anxiety. As someone who has been diagnosed with anxiety, I find music to be a really positive influence in my life. The act of simply taking a few minutes out of your day to relax and listen to some music can help you put your thoughts and worries into perspective. You spend some time focussing on how you actually feel rather than that extensive list of all the things you have to do today. However insignificant those ten minutes may seem, they can actually be really effective.

If you’re able to play music, this can also have a great effect on your mental well-being. It improves self-esteem, focus and communication. Making music is one of the oldest and most beautiful ways that humans have of expressing ourselves. Finding a way to express your emotions through creativity is a brilliant way to come to terms with them and rationalise them. We shouldn’t hide our feelings away and pretend they don’t matter. That’s how our mental illnesses can control us. By accepting that this is a real problem, we can find solutions. Musical expression is just one of these solutions.

Within nearly every musical genre, you can find examples of artists that have struggled with mental health. There is a myth that having a mental illness makes you a more creative person and although many artists’ work has been inspired by their mental and emotional struggles, this is a romanticised view of a serious health problem. The fact that many artists have struggled with mental illness does not make this a ‘creative’s disease’. It’s simply an issue that affects a lot of people so, inevitably, some of these people are musicians.

Many musicians have used their fame to speak out about mental illness in order to help others that might be struggling. The most recent of these is Zayn Malik. Although I’m not personally a fan of his music, I really admire his choice to speak openly about his struggles with mental health. He wrote in Time magazine that: “Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of; it affects millions of people every day. I know I have fans out there who have been through this kind of thing too”. This message is coming from a successful popstar, with a huge fan-base. To hear from one of your idols that mental illness is common, acceptable and that anyone can suffer from it, can only have a positive effect on the young people that look up to him.

Malik isn’t the only musician to have addressed personal, mental struggles in public. Eric Clapton has admitted to problems with alcoholism. Barbara Streisand has spoken openly about having social anxiety disorder. Beach Boys member Brian Wilson has spoken out against the idea that mental illness enhances creativity. He has been diagnosed with depression and schizoaffective disorder and says that his depression has actually stopped him from making music.

Musicians speaking out about their own experiences is vital when it comes to breaking through the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. Especially since many of them encourage others to seek professional help in order to overcome their difficulties.

As a society, we need to stop being scared to talk about mental illness. Music could be an amazing way to combat this problem but none of that matters if people are too afraid or uninformed to seek help. It’s time to break the stigma. Musicians are starting to talk about mental health and we all need to get involved in the discussion. This is the only way to find a solution.

Katie O’Kelly

(Image: Olagist)

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