Mental health matters: exploring depression & anxiety in our musical mess age

Mental Health Matters

Mental health matters

Getintothis’ Beth Parker talks to The Open Door Centre while pondering music and common misconceptions about the mind. 

The facts are well documented and the statistics oft repeated that one in four of us will suffer a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, each year.

Yet despite this and the fact that suicide, not alcohol, drugs or physical illness, is the single biggest killer of men aged 20-45 in the UK, mental illness remains on the periphery of political and societal debate. While discussions are growing and awareness increasing through the work of charities like CALM’s #Mandown campaign, acceptance of mental health issues within society still has a long way to go.

As, let’s face it, mental health has a stigma attached to it. It’s often seen to be a dirty secret, unsavoury, something to be locked behind closed doors, never to see the light of day. It’s an issue which remains shrouded in taboo, shame and misunderstanding.

For while it’s perfectly normal and understandable to go and see your doctor about any form of bodily ache and pain or even go that little bit further and air it on national telly (we’re thinking of the aptly titled Embarrassing Bodies), most of us will deny or ignore mental health issues for fear of retribution and being labelled an oddball.

There are many reasons why mental health issues aren’t currently being discussed openly. Apprehension, lack of understanding and shame are just some of a few.

Lee Pennington, Director of the Wirral based Open Door Centre, a charity which works with young people providing free, immediate therapeutic support whilst promoting discussion of depression and anxiety within creative, artistic and musical circles as opposed to the typical medical, clinical domain, confirmed that stigma is one of the main barriers working against mental health today:

“While depression, anxiety and mental health issues in general have an undeniable physical element, the associated stigma, misunderstanding, embarrassment and misinformation which all too often comes hand in hand has a hugely compounding and damaging effect on both the individual’s emotional state and their capacity to change their situation and access support.”

He added that such issues, “May even be a generational thing. It’s going to require an overhaul in the way that society views and understands these issues, along with the values systems which people assign to mental distress”.

The Open Door Centre uses music and creativity at the heart of its work, through projects such as the weekly music group The Boom Room and annual Astral Coast Festival, in an attempt to encourage those who may feel scared of seeking help to find it, for the benefits of music therapy and mental well-being are well documented.

The Open Door Centre

The Open Door Centre

The British Association for Music Therapy, for instance, has found that music therapy can impact fundamentally on the way people with a range of emotional disorders live their lives, from building self-esteem and confidence to allowing individual’s to express themselves creatively, the benefits are plentiful.

Other research has evidenced how even just listening to music can do boss things for our brains. A study reported in Nature Neuroscience found that music releases a feel-good chemical, dopamine, in to our brains. This is the same chemical which increases in response to other ace stimuli, such as food and money. And it is also the same chemical known to produce a wondrous state in response to material stimulants, like eating fizzy sweets and taking cocaine, and even with less quantifiable ones, such as being in love.

Pennington discussed how the use of music, art and creative therapies used in the ODC has had a positive impact upon service users at the charity: “Our work with the centre is focused on taking the discussion of mental health outside of the clinical, hospital world and into peoples’ lives in a normal, modern way”.

“This is to counter the diagnosis/cure model which exists at the moment in relation to these issues, because that has no bearing at all on stigma, embarrassment and all of the other compounding factors that directly contribute to suicide being the biggest killer of young men in the UK and the many other issues which we are trying to creatively address”.

He believes “Music is a fantastic medium to cultivate change and a universal way to reach people”.

The Liverpool Philharmonic also champions the use of music to support those with mental health issues. Since 2008, the Phil and the Mersey Care NHS Trust have partnered for the Musician in Residence Programme (MiR), a project which supports adults with a range of mental health issues by providing weekly music making, improvisation and performance classes across Mersey Care sites.

Yet the relationship between music, art and mental health is at once symbiotic as it is paradoxical.

For while it, undoubtedly, offers an alternative and an escape for many who suffer from issues of depression and other mental health illnesses, it has been witnessed time and time again how those who create the music which helps each one of us through rough times were in fact battling emotional issues which led to their own demise.

We don’t have to scroll back far in musical history to see the evidence: Kurt Kobain, Nick Drake and Karen Carpenter are just some in a long list of names.

 And while arguments are often favourable towards it, the trait of music, mental illness and suicide is not something that can be solely linked to the prominence of drugs and alcohol so typical in rock ‘n’ roll.

A study carried out last year by the musician’s charity Help Musicians UK found that nearly 60% of professional musicians had experienced psychological issues, like depression, as a result of their profession – much higher than the one in four non-musos.

Unstable job prospects, precarious income, the ‘creative mind’, pressure and criticism are just some answers given as to why musicians and artists are more prone to emotional distress.

Chances are though, that many people reading this have also gone through some sort of mental health issue themselves and if not, almost definitely, know someone who has. And the chances are greater still that many of these people have felt reluctant to seek help and would rather battle their problems alone.

Even in researching for this article it was difficult (nigh on impossible) to find a musician who felt able or comfortable to speak about the issue of mental health, again pointing towards issues of stigma within the music industry and society more generally.

But times are changing, slowly but surely.

Last year saw the prog band Kitten Pyramid tour psychiatric wards, including Bedlam, after their release of Uh Oh, an album which illustrated lead singer Scott Milligan’s uncle’s battles with schizophrenia. And Sinead O’Connor’s extra-curricular involvement in Lana Del Rey’s affairs after Del Rey wished she “was dead already” is well versed.

Even where we can’t find explicit outward and open discussion of the topic there is always implicit meaning of mental health issues in lyrics.

Whether it’s the utter depression and inner turmoil after heartbreak, recently painfully and honestly crafted in Bjork’s Black Lake, Family and Notget, or just that feeling of thinking you’re a proper weirdo that’s so aptly described in The Feelies, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness, music has a way of reckoning in to our feelings and making us feel better.

Think of those bands which people often tirade for being so depresso, monotonous and dull. Bands like Radiohead and Joy Division. If we look behind the chords and bore a little in to the lyrics which are, at times, excruciatingly sad, openly raw and so sincere, for many songs like Weird Fishes, Let Down and Isolation do in fact have the opposite effect and uplift listeners’ feelings. It’s always nice to know that someone else understands, even if they are the lead singer of a group.

Something touched on last year by Bill Ryder-Jones in Halycon Mag: “You need a certain level of understanding of human beings to make music and put it out there, in that way. It’s never been something that I have ever thought ‘pull yourself together and get on with it’”.

It’s admirable to see that Merseyside musicians, organisations and galleries are continuously working hard to reverse stigma and get mental health and emotional issues on the agenda and in our day to day conversations and lives.

Such promotion of discussion and support of issues surrounding mental health does much for the topic.

We’re hopeful that if people are more willing to speak about mental health problems the more normalised the whole issue will become within society and the less ridiculed it will be.

For anyone suffering in silence from a mental health issue, Pennington suggests you should: “Talk to others, starting with friends and family and you will probably find that a great deal of them have been there themselves.”

“Since I started the charity the amount of people who have spoken to me about ways they have felt or the issues facing someone around them has been huge.

“I imagine it probably relates to their perception of your capacity to understand and not judge, which in time will hopefully be commonplace.”

So even if you’re just feeling the Fear after a heavy night on the ale or something more serious, while eating some fizzy sweets or blasting your favourite song full volume are sure to help short term, don’t be afraid to turn to your mate or to charities like the Open Door Centre and CALM for help and advice.

If you feel you may need to speak to someone about a mental health issue concerning yourself or someone you know get in touch with the Open Door Centre at: or ring 0151 639 4545, or visit CALM at: