Help Musicians NI Pitches in for Mental Health
The UK charity's recently launched Belfast office is providing specialised support schemes and counsel for local artists who may be suffering in silence
The tortured artist channels their despair into the birthing of creativity. Like a rose, the creator's mind is beautiful in bloom, but the inescapable pain of the thorns still lurks. Help Musicians is a concept that looks to bring those suffering from mental illness out of the darkness.
The charity was set up in 1921 and provides help and support to working and retired musicians through counselling services, health schemes and a Creative Programme which awards a series of grants to emerging and mid-career musicians to help with their artistic or professional development or take their career to the next step.
In November NI Music Prize nominee Ryan Vail and Pat Dam Smyth helped launch a dedicated Northern Ireland office based out of the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, and having spearheaded a number of successful charity campaigns, Chief Executive Richard Robinson is confident about what it can offer native performers.
'Help Musicians will celebrate its centenary in 2021 and in preparation for that we have created a modernisation strategy – Agenda 2021,' he says. 'One of the key facets of that strategy is to be reflective of our name and help musicians across the UK.
'We chose Northern Ireland as our first outreach initiative because it has incredible artistic talent and there are some excellent programmes already running. However, it does seem that NI does not enjoy as much arts funding as the rest of the UK. Given the amazing talent that already exists, it was obvious that any funding we could provide would have the biggest immediate impact here.'
And while Robinson is reluctant to reveal too much about plans for the year ahead, this month the charity is working alongside the Music Venue Trust and Independent Venue Week (headed up by The Charlatans' Tim Burgess) in order to shine a well deserved spotlight on the country’s musical venues, as well as a three year programme of support and guidance.
'Our creative programme has already launched '3:3 Three Bands in Three Years' – this is a NI-specific award which will see three bands access a three year programme of support, guidance and artistic development. We are also launching a Creative Employment Programme with Creative & Cultural Skills and are piloting a Creative Collaborators Scheme which will support musicians who want to work with other art forms or creative industries.'
Mental illness is certainly talked about more now than in previous years, but it’s still not loud enough. A study conducted by the University of Westminster found that musicians are three times as likely to suffer from some form of mental illness in comparison to those in another profession. The study highlighted several key areas. Difficulty in sustaining a living, health concerns and difficult separating work life and personal life all contribute to the feeling of dread and isolation that washes over those with mental health problems.
Depression can make a person feel entirely on their own, no matter how many people are around them. So how can we encourage a sufferer to talk when they feel they have no one to talk to?
'2016 was a year where we saw more and more musicians speaking out than ever before on the subject of mental health,' says Robinson. 'A few years ago they may have opened themselves up to mockery or scrutiny from fans and the press (Britney Spears and Brian Harvey come to mind) but now people seem far more receptive to these cries for help when you look at, for example, the way Zayn Malik’s anxiety has been treated.
'Hopefully this also means that artists will begin to recognise that duty of care starts with the self. We want to build on this work by helping to tackle the pervasive stigma around mental health. As talking about our mental health becomes more commonplace hopefully musicians will not feel so isolated.
'The ultimate aim of our campaign is to set up a mental health service aimed at musicians,' he adds. 'That may mean that musicians with depression will feel more able to reach out because they know they’ll be able to speak to someone who understands the strains of their profession.'
The ‘macho’ stereotype that males are quite often earmarked with has been a well documented element of mental illness in recent months. Society tells men that they must suppress their inner sadness in favour of a ‘get on with it’ way of thinking. This is something that Help Musicians have also identified, and it’s something that they feel is vital to eradicate, especially within an industry were alcohol and drug abuse is so common.
'The received wisdom is that rather than confront their issues, men close up and use alcohol as a coping mechanism,' Robinson explains. 'That is potentially a serious issue in an industry where drug and alcohol abuse is still widespread. Our research showed that 40% drank regularly and almost 20% a lot, while over a third took recreational drugs. I think that there continues to be a pervasive stigma within the music industry about this issue. That’s not surprising when we are talking about a profession where individuals are expected to perform consistently at the top level. The fear that an artist could be labelled as ‘unreliable’ and having their ability to find work affected, is a powerful incentive to not speak out about their mental health problems. It’s crucial that men feel able to talk about their mental health so that they do not suffer in silence.'
There are many artists who might not be here today if it wasn’t for Robinson and the Help Musicians team. Their dedication to the awareness and treatment of mental illness is refreshing and heartfelt. It’s comforting to know that no matter how alone a person might feel, they are never truly abandoned.
'I hope that we can play our part in ensuring that Northern Ireland has the infrastructure that such vibrant talent deserves,' he says. 'This isn’t about using the HMUK/HMNI brand or ethos to replace any of the existing successful music programmes in NI – it’s about adding value and support. However, we are committed to building a sustainable HMNI brand and in order to do so we need to fundraise and raise our profile effectively. These are exciting times.'
Help Musicians NI will be showcasing as part of the largest all-Ireland music conference, Output 2017, which takes place at the MAC, Belfast on February 16. For further details visit www.outputbelfast.com. For more on Help Musicians NI and its current opportunities visit its website.