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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Karu

Mental Health and Disabilities in the Arts: An Overview of the Discussion with Odyssey

Happy Friday everyone! I've decided to take a recent chat I did for Odyssey the Arts Initiative and transcribe it into a written format. For anyones who missed it, check out this blog post and the link to the video will also be at the bottom. A great chat was had regarding mental health and disabilities in the arts; how it affects those who might be suffering, what challenges they may face, and how others can be allies. So with that being said, lets get to it!


Q: Let's start with mental health - an ever-present crisis in the arts industry, and particularly in the music world. According to the British Charity "Help Musicians", 87 percent of musicians in the UK say that their mental health has deteriorated over the past year. 66 percent said a major factor in this was the feeling of a "lack of purpose", and 96 percent said they were worried about their financial situation generally. How can musicians, and artists, as a community, work to support each other in this mental health crisis - and the general mental health crisis plaguing the arts?

A: So let me address how it’s been during covid first, and this 66% feeling a lack of purpose. There was a post that came out in a newspaper about the five most essential jobs, and the 5 most nonessential jobs. Artists were #1 on the most nonessential jobs list. Take a second and think about how that may have affected people. Also take into consideration that it took artists to create that post in the paper. Artists have created magazines, websites, tv shows, music, graphic designs, and so on and so forth. Imagine going through quarantine without these things. With no tv to watch, or games to play, or magazines/articles to read. While the arts are not “essential” like doctors and nurses in this current climate, they are essential for the body and mind. A lack thereof can increase the mental health crisis. But this post really was a punch in the gut for many. It reminds us of how people view musicians, painters, dancers, vocalists, etc. It makes us feel as if we are unimportant, when in reality, we, and our craft, were a saving grace for many in quarantine.

Now the 96% worrying about their financial situations. The arts are known for financial instability, and that’s the truth of it. It’s very difficult to obtain jobs at early ages. It requires years of training and takes entrepreneurial/business skills to create success. This is something that is overlooked in the educational system. Student’s are not always set up for success in the real world, and I personally feel like that must change.

Mental health crises can stem from multiple places in the Arts. Fears of not succeeding, lack of support, or confidence, lack of plans or a direct career path, financial instability, and even genetics! With this being said, mental health is not something to be penalized for. It’s important to check in on friends, colleagues, students, etc. to see how they’re doing. Can you offer them something? Advice (IF THEY WANT IT), a listening hear, a coffee, a shoulder to lean on? Do you have resources you can offer them? It’s important to let them know you hear them and want to help if you can. Do not pass judgement, and do not overstep.

Q: Our audiences are also a major factor and component of our communities as artists. What are some ways that they can be involved in supporting the mental health of artists?

A: Recognize that the artists they admire do suffer. That we create an enjoyable atmosphere for their entertainment. It’s always important to be kind. To not take advantage of these experiences, because of things like COVID, the performing arts can be the first thing to go. Many of us are struggling financially and emotionally. If you have the means to donate to these organizations, or orchestras such as the Metropolitan Opera, please do so. This can help alleviate some financial strain that may be playing into their struggle with mental health. We give to you what we can with music and art, and if you can even pay us with a compliment or donate a few dollars to our place of work, it’s greatly appreciated and recognized.

Q: Many high profile musicians and artists suffer from very visible disabilities - Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Andrea Bocelli, for example, all suffer, or suffered, from loss of sight. There are, however, far more invisible disabilities, ones which can be difficult to discuss. How are they perceived in the arts in general?

A: Whether it’s visible, or invisible, I don’t think they’re perceived well, or understood. For example, with invisible illnesses you may look “healthy”, but are battling a disease that may warrant disability accommodations. It can be difficult to understand. These illnesses are also easier to hide in a way, and some people do hide because they don’t want to be perceived a certain way, or lose out on jobs. For example, I took a lesson with someone last year, and to preface this, I sit and play my horn. I don’t stand for solo playing because I am prone to fainting. Personally I’d rather be comfortable sitting than hit the ground trying to play standing up. Anyways, this person questioned me about it and said, “Why do you sit when you play? Are you lazy? I think you’re lazy”.

Needless to say, I didn’t feel like I wanted to, or had to explain anything at that point. There was a judgement already made and I did not need to give them anything else. I also never spoke to or took another lesson with this person again. Because of reactions like this, it makes people hesitant sometimes. And this is another reason that we need to be cautious with the ways we can come off to people and the things we say. If you don’t know someone, refrain from passing any sort of judgement. Instead you can inquire about why they may sit versus stand. They may tell you in full, or be more discrete. No one is required to disclose any information about their disability if they don’t want to. This is also an opportunity for you to listen. Listen and learn for that matter.

Q: What steps can artists take to support their fellow artists with disabilities?

A: Like I said before, listen, learn and always be kind to people. You don’t know people’s history, what they might struggle with, or their personal lives, so please think before you act/speak. Some more things you can do:

-Watch your vocabulary and how you use terms/disabilities to label things. For example, saying you’re OCD, when you are not diagnosed, and are just using that as an adjective to describe that you are a tidy person. This can be felt as a microaggression and is a very ableist thing to say. Please just say you like to be tidy and organized.

-Do not offer unsolicited advice, or make suggestions about Alternative medicine. While there’s no shade or anything against people who use or believe in alternative medicine, it does not typically work for us, and don’t think we probably haven’t tried something like that before. Don’t offer advice about “curing”, or “fixing”. We don’t need to be fixed, and many people cannot be cured. It is a bit insensitive so just be aware!

-Lastly, stop the stigma about taking prescription medications. Some people actually need them. Whether it's medication for a heart problem, or for bipolar disorder, there’s no reason to judge anyone for doing what they need to feel better, or get by. They are under the care of their physician, and sometimes MULTIPLE physicians, so let them do their job of helping us manage our conditions.

Q: Lastly - we've discussed both artists and their audiences, in the lenses of support in mental health and disabilities. But what about institutions? Presenters, art galleries, concert halls, conservatories - what can, and should, they do?

A: MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS ACCESSIBLE AT ALL TIMES! Elevators, ramps, etc. If presenting, try to use more than one method. Use both visual and audible, and even tactile/kinesthetic methods if possible. The performing arts specifically need to offer courses that aim at the post college phase. How to become financially stable/independent, courses on entrepreneurship/business/marketing, etc. We’re taught music theory, history, fundamentals and performing techniques, and that’s all great! But teach us how to thrive outside of university and get rid of these gross “hours of practice = success” mentalities. The performing arts field is made to feel like it’s not possible, plausible, or accessible. That only those given the key can make this work. This is honestly not the case. The performing arts field is difficult, yes, but it is not an impossible field of work. We need to stop making it seem as such. Offer students the correct tools to become successful.


Want to listen to the full discussion? Check it out here!

Let’s keep talking about these things. You have any thoughts, feelings or comments about the discussion? Reach out and let’s talk about it! You can find me on instagram @mindoverpractice, or feel free to email me at Keep in mind I offer coaching sessions and the initial consultation is FREE! DM me for more information. For now, have a productive week of positive practicing!

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