Music and my mental health


Mental health is an incredibly important part of our entire being. It’s a topic that was never really spoken about until fairly recently. However, there is now less of a stigma surrounding the topic and we are fully aware of the impact it has on all aspects of our lives. Currently, nearly one in four people worldwide will be affected by a mental health condition at some point in their lives.

In relation to music, many studies have been undertaken on the use of music and how it has positive effects on both mental and physical health. Pretty much everyone I know (myself included) listens to music or plays an instrument to help relieve anxiety, lift up their mood and so many more reasons!

With that in mind, it is really surprising to hear that such a positive activity can produce such negative emotions for musicians. A survey taken in 2019 shows that 73% of musicians have experienced stress, anxiety and/or depression in relation to their own music making.

There is a real mental health crisis going on for all age groups and backgrounds due to long waiting lists to get an initial assessment, lack of funding and resources, some stigma surrounding mental health, an ongoing pandemic…the list can go on and on!

As today is World Mental Health Day, I wanted to share my “story”, I guess, of the highs and lows of my mental health and how music has had an impact on this.

I started to learn the violin when I was eight years old, and I have been a very musical/creative person for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I have always been an excessive worrier from a very young age. I began seeing a psychologist when I was ten and was formally diagnosed with anxiety three years later. I was very fortunate with the support I received during school as I was on waiting lists for a very short period. I know many people have had mixed experiences with CAMHS so I won’t dwell on it too much! I have also been on and off antidepressants for seven years and currently take sertraline which works really well for me. I only began to notice how playing violin had a positive impact on my mental health shortly after my Grandad passed away; it managed to relieve any feelings of uneasiness, help me cope with feelings of grief and it greatly improved my self-confidence in music and in school.

16 year old me performing with the Scottish Ensemble, May 2015

In September 2016, I started studying classical music at Edinburgh Napier University. I struggled on and off with performance anxiety throughout my degree which began when I failed my first performance exam. My confidence was knocked and I got so upset that I let nerves take over. Fortunately, my lecturers were very supportive and I passed my exam the following semester (not having marks count in first and second year was such a relief!)

Things started to take a turn during my second year. I placed a lot of pressure on myself to sound perfect as I was terrified to fail again. I was also on new medication which made me feel constantly tired and irritable. Over time, I slowly found myself not enjoying practicing for various reasons – my intonation is bad, I can’t get the rhythms right, “what’s the point if I’m just going to fail again”. By focusing on what I couldn’t do, I failed to recognise any positives that arose from this. The pressure on playing perfectly caused me to neglect basic needs: I wasn’t eating right, hardly getting enough sleep and got so angry with myself to the point where I would self-harm. In one of my lessons, my violin teacher asked me if I had lost weight and asked if everything was okay, and I lied saying “everything is fine – just uni stress!”. That was when it started to click that I was really struggling mentally and needed more help.

When I got my feedback for this performance exam – I had failed. I had an appointment with my counsellor the same day of receiving my grade and I burst out crying and confided to her that I had been self-harming and didn’t care about what would happen to me. I had an emergency appointment with my GP and was signed off from uni for the last month of the semester. Again, I was very fortunate to get a lot of support from my lecturers, close friends and family, and my boyfriend at the time.

Following this, I really worked (still a work in progress) to not be so hard on myself, and to find positives when performing and practicing. I found recording myself helped to both visualise and hear what I would need to focus on for future practice. I spent more time organising my practice by doing it in smaller chunks in order to not burn myself out and found this to be incredibly effective – I passed the rest of my performance exams first time yay! I also tried to work on my performance anxiety by doing more solo performances and setting up an Instagram documenting all aspects of my practice which I have recently revived! (@practiceyourviolinandrea)

I also found the positives in playing as part of an orchestra – creating such a wonderful sound with other people is one of the most rewarding feelings ever. Focusing on performing for my own fun and enjoyment rather than for an exam made me fall back in love with violin, and reminded me of the reasons why I wanted to pursue a career in music. Thanks to lockdown, I last played in a concert in November last year and my last paid gig was in March 12th – just before everything shut down.

Glasgow Philharmonia, June 2018

From experiencing poor mental health in something that I am so passionate about, my dissertation explored the impact of community choirs on mental health and wellbeing. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing this, and I got a 2:1 overall for my degree! It has also made me motivated to help and support others using music and my goal is to become a music therapist, more information about music therapy can be found here.

One important thing I have learned is to be open with your loved ones; I am now a lot more open and comfortable expressing how I feel with my close friends and family especially with my mental health. 2020 has been an incredibly draining year, and we all need to support each-other now more than ever. Donate to mental health charities if you can, call a friend or family member, listen to music, play an instrument, exercise – whatever helps with managing your wellbeing! It is a lot easier said than done to not be hard on yourself, this is something I am prioritising right now.

It is completely normal and okay to make mistakes – especially in music! When I think about myself from 3 years ago, I feel like a completely new person. I’m a lot better at looking after myself and feel a lot more able to cope if I’m feeling particularly anxious or low. I take my time when practicing, and allow myself to make mistakes – after all, that’s the best way to learn and improve!

I am by no means a mental health expert, but if you are struggling with your mental health do not be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional or to friends and family! There are also many resources and helplines available for support:


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