Sarah Sharp, PhD researcher, writes about her experiences of music education, mental illness, and recovery through music.
When I have asked writers for advice on producing an interesting piece of informative work, they usually say ‘write about what you know’. So, I am taking their advice and discussing mental health and popular music. I have been on and off many medications since I was 14, where an admission to an adolescent psychiatric unit changed my outlook on life forever. I discovered strengths I didn’t know I had, and talking to other inpatients about their life experiences taught me that life could be very cruel. I usually spent my spare time in the unit with the other patients listening to our favourite pop music. Music seemed to keep our spirits up and help us to connect with one another. We were less lonely with pop music in our lives. Socialising with others over our much-loved music made me feel ‘normal’, and not a broken kid with an illness that was regularly stigmatised.
A few years after this period, I started to have guitar lessons. As my confidence grew in my musical abilities, I realised making music was the path I wanted to take in life. The next year I enrolled onto a popular music course. This is when I discovered how competitive musicians could be. Unfortunately, my confidence didn’t last long. Bullying was rife on the course, including misogyny and disability hate. Alongside the lack of emotional support, my enthusiasm for playing music disappeared. I found passing the course very hard, but I managed it. I felt that those who were emotionally sensitive weren’t given the chance to show their full potential due to the idea that you had to be emotionally tough to succeed in the industry. I suffered from many bouts of depression and anxiety whilst studying the course. After this experience, I realised it wasn’t the music that made me ill, but the environment in which the music was made.
I went to university aged 21 to study the creative industries, and then was admitted to hospital for mental ill health two more times from the age of 24. One aspect of coping and healing for me and the other patients was clear to me: music. Whenever I was in hospital, you could hear music coming from the TV rooms and mobile phones. Patients would wear headphones walking up and down the corridors and in the courtyard. During my psychosis, I can remember singing Courtney Love’s solo album America’s Sweetheart out loud on my bed. In retrospect, I believe I was searching for a way to express my fear and anger. I can’t remember too much about this – the medication I was given was very strong! – but I believe her music helped.
Despite having many negative experiences during my music studies at college, academically I don’t regret my experience. Thirteen years later, I took my knowledge gained of popular music and used it to gain a place on a master’s degree. I wrote an essay on the interdisciplinary subject of disability studies and popular music, and another on my experience of facial disfigurement, mental health, and how the music of Courtney Love and her band Hole helped me cope emotionally. I am now studying for a PhD in popular musicians and bipolar disorder, researching famous female popular musicians who have a link to bipolar disorder, and their experiences and (self-)representations.
My postgraduate research and my negative experiences on the popular music course have taught me that working in the music industry has potential to create poor mental health. Research has shown high rates of depression and anxiety in popular musicians due to a variety of reasons, including competition in the workplace, working in a largely gig economy, and continuous working activity. The music industry is a tough environment to work in and, without mental health support, many may consider leaving it. The loss of many highly-talented artists producing great music would be a great loss.
I feel fortunate that I have been able to carry on academic study on the music industry, but I wish that my younger years studying the subject weren’t so difficult to cope with. I hope future students of the discipline have a better experience than I did, and that the industry will have changed to protect their mental health. I also hope young people with mental illnesses will keep using music making and listening to help manage their mental illnesses.