Mental health problems on the increase among performing artists – but playing in an orchestra helps

Data from a major charity shows a large increase over a five-year period in the number of performers seeking mental health help

18th March 2024 about a 4 minute read
“Without being able to perform many felt completely bereft. It is so much part of their identity and fundamentally affected their sense of self." Claire Cordeaux, chief executive, Bapam

There has been a big rise in mental illness in the performing arts community, a charity has said.

Clinical consultations provided by the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (Bapam) increased by 86% from 2019 to 2023. Consultations relating to mental health, however, increased by nearly 400%.

Bapam’s chief executive, Claire Cordeaux, said that the Covid-19 pandemic had been a major contributing factor towards both the rise in mental health problems and an increase in vocal problems.

“Without being able to perform many felt completely bereft. It is so much part of their identity and fundamentally affected their sense of self,” she said.

She also thought the increase could be partly the consequence of financial insecurity. Many performing artists are freelance, and therefore don’t have a predictable income stream.

About 3,000 people seek consultations with Bapam annually. Cordeaux told the Times that the data suggested that musicians playing in an orchestra showed quicker recovery times than other performing artists.

“They went up at the same rate but they came down much quicker,” she said of the number of presentations and subsequent discharges. “And I wonder if there is a protective factor about being in an orchestra and whether they are able to support their players a bit more.”

She noted that the quicker discharge applied only to classical musicians: “It wasn’t the same with singer-songwriters and other solo performers.”

‘Crucial’ for performers to protect health

Bapam, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is the largest provider of clinical services to the UK’s performing arts sector. It supports musicians, singers, dancers, actors, circus performers and more, as well as those who work behind the scenes.

The charity’s UK-wide network of psychotherapists and psychologists delivered more than 7,200 psychotherapy sessions last year to performers funded under the Equity and Dance Professionals Fund schemes and a partnership with Music Minds Matter.

Dame Evelyn Glennie, the world-famous percussionist, and a Bpam patron, said: “It’s absolutely crucial for performers to be able to protect and maintain our health; a simple injury or an undiagnosed condition can put a hard stop on our careers, reshape our futures and threaten our livelihoods. That’s why a service like Bapam is a real lifeline for performers; it allows us to benefit from free consultation with experienced and qualified practitioners, ensuring we get the help we need to safeguard our careers into the future. It’s a privilege to be a patron and to champion and promote the vital work it delivers and the people who make it possible.”

Although there’d been a big increase in mental health consultations, the main health concern reported by people contacting the charity was musculosketal injury, which accounted for 40% of all medical consultations. “It is an intensely physical job with very long hours and you have to be reasonably fit,” Cordeaux said. “You need to warm up your body before you play so you are not picking it up cold, but it is not an environment built for that.”

Enquiries relating to vocal health also increased in the period between 2019 and 2023. They made up 15% of Bapam’s casework in 2023, compared to 6% in 2019. Bapam has increased the number of clinicians able to undertake an initial assessment to meet the greater demand.

Cordeaux said that although there was increased awareness of the health benefits of participation in the arts it was “ironic that a lot of the people who are making us feel better are not very well themselves”. She added: “In the excitement about doing more with the arts for wellbeing, [it is important] that we also pay attention to the artists who are making that happen,” she said.

FCC Insight

The years since the Covid pandemic have seen a dramatic increase across society in the numbers of people reporting mental health problems. Some of this rise appears to be related to the pandemic, but the cost-of-living crisis has also played a part. Perhaps it is not surprising that performing artists, who are often not highly paid and who are particularly dependent on freelance contracts, have experienced such a big rise in mental health difficulties. The encouraging piece of news, however, is that orchestral musicians seem to recover more quickly from a bout of mental illness – perhaps because they are less isolated and have a community to support them. It suggests that one way of addressing mental health problems is through social prescribing, which can reduce loneliness and create a sense of purpose.