Mental health and the music industry has rightly received more focus over the last few years. The business of creativity and expressing oneself not to mention the lifestyle which comes with fulfilling live commitments inevitably takes a toll on wellbeing.
With their strong ties to the creative community The Open Door Centre know all about these correlations. They are also experts in counselling families and households through times which deliver mental strain. Their Unity Matters provision aims to do just that in the time of Covid-19.
As part of our partnership with The ODC, musician Nik Glover spoke to the charity about handling the pressures of isolating together and how this might resonate with the oppressive lifestyle of being a working musician.
For people whose job it is to get up on stage and entertain other people, bands can sometimes be pretty awful at talking to each other. Spending weeks away from home with a small group of friends, sleeping in splitter vans, drinking too much and eating bad food doesn’t exactly class as self-isolation. But it does tend to repress difficult conversations.
My own experiences of touring aren’t unique, and neither are they truly representative. I’ve heard of bands that ban all alcohol, or that are entirely vegetarian or vegan. Some would probably claim to have fantastic, open relationships with their bandmates, and some may actually have them. What connects them all is the disjunction of touring and of the hand-to-mouth existence that being essentially a travelling salesperson in an over-saturated market brings. To coin a cat poster – we all have to take care of ourselves and each other. Bands are like families.
Out there in the more real world, third sector bodies like The Open Door Centre are offering services that aim to help make the kinds of conversations that real families need to have during lockdown easier.
Unity Matters, their collaboration with Wirral Council and other local organisations such as The Convenience Gallery, aims to support families through the stresses of coronavirus; the kind of support depends on the family’s unique circumstances, but focuses on themes we’re all experiencing right now.
Zoe Richardson is an Empowerment and Wellbeing Manager at the Open Door Centre. She says that the current situation has made it more important that the centre reminds those it was set up to support that it’s still there to support families.
“Families, and individuals generally, have an incredible amount of resilience and I’m seeing that being drawn on a lot in these times. People are resourceful when figuring out ways of coping with the obstacles life can throw up. However, this current situation is shockingly new and that can lead to feeling a lack of control.
“You’ve got issues such as isolation, which is a challenge faced by a lot of families who cannot connect in their normal ways to their usual networks – wider family and friends, schools, community groups etc.
“This ties in with another challenge, which is the change in routine. Routine can give a sense of purpose and stability, and if that is suddenly, dramatically altered, as it has been for a lot of people, it can impact us negatively.”
The feeling of being hemmed in, of needing space away from your immediate family, is something Zoe has noticed as a theme coming out of the conversations she has been having.
“Some families are experiencing increased conflict, and our usual methods for diffusion have been reduced. It’s not so easy to get space. Both physical and mental space can be wondrous for wellbeing, and when this is lost we can have a sense of being ‘pressed in on’. Small disagreements can escalate quickly and our interpersonal relationships can be affected as a consequence.
“Deterioration in mental wellbeing is an effect I’m seeing, and that can present in various ways. Anxiety is a big one, and given the circumstances, a very understandable response to uncertainty. Loss weighs heavily; loss of hope, loss of connection, worries about losing a loved one.”
The Open Door Centre are well-placed to answer these needs, with staff trained in safeguarding, mentoring, autism, mental health, suicide prevention, reducing conflict and building resilience. This experience on the ground means the service is already being taken up by local families.
“We’ve had a number of families so far and we’ve also had people getting in touch just to ask a question or get a few tips. That’s the beauty of encouraging an open dialogue. We’re saying that, even if you don’t need full sessions, we’re here if you want to reach out. We tailor support to individual needs, and the team’s understanding of the support landscape locally means we can refer families to other agencies if necessary.”
Delivering the sessions virtually is more challenging. While musicians are finding ways to continue performing despite the impossibility of touring, support services like Unity Matters are facing similar obstacles that the ban on face-to-face interaction throws up. Being in the room while a band performs is part of the magic. How does relying on Skype change conversations with families?
“Some nuances are harder to perceive, like body language or facial expressions, but a natural conversation can still be had via video call. Some families actually feel more comfortable as they are in a familiar environment. It’s important to us that families feel comfortable.
“We may ask some establishing questions to guide conversation initially, to get a good understanding of the situation as it is for the person. In the first session, we would usually have a good chat about what particularly is making things difficult right now. As an example, if conflict with another family member is causing stress, we would discuss ways to mitigate that, based on their circumstances and what is practically possible. We might discuss better communication methods, relaxation techniques, and establish some goals, which we then check in the follow up session.
“We work with whatever gets thrown up. Sometimes people are seeking practical advice, sometimes they just want the space with someone to work through their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
“We encourage families to harness the strengths they already possess. We may explore which coping strategies may best benefit them. People don’t necessarily want us to solve things for them – just being given the time and space to let off steam and not be judged for that can be incredibly empowering and reassuring.”
So what advice can Zoe give to touring bands when the industry wakes from its slumber? How can musicians driving up and down the M6, living in close quarters with their bandmates, stay safe and resilient?
“Assert boundaries! Close proximity likely means a lack of personal space, but individuals can claim their own mental space by letting the group know when they need some time. Each band member will have different needs and it’s important to be clear and communicate these ahead of time, if possible. Be tolerant of other perspectives. Try to learn each other’s stressors.
“These skills take time to develop. Having a supportive contact outside of the group, someone they can call or message ‘back home’ if things feel stressful could be useful. Practising meditation can be grounding, and is easy to do on the move by using apps like Headspace or Insight Timer and a pair of headphones.
“This is something a lot of the individuals I work with already recognise – the power of music to transform and lift the spirit; to relate to, and make sense of, painful feelings. Some families are turning towards creation as a means to keep busy, bring some happiness, and they’re doing this by making collages, music videos, maybe simply keeping a diary. Keeping a journal can be artistic. What I’m trying to encourage is that people can be creative in a non-traditional sense.’
Finally, it’s not just the families they support who may be suffering right now. How does the charity ensure its own volunteers are safe and well?
“Staff regularly check in with our volunteers to ensure their wellbeing and connection. The volunteer team is the beating heart that is The Open Door Centre. It is vital that they feel supported.
“I think, generally, volunteering brings with it a sense of positivity, reward and satisfaction. Research shows that contributing time, skills and emotional investment into helping others boasts a wealth of positive benefits. There is strong evidence supporting the link between volunteering and improved mental health and wellbeing. We are so proud of all the volunteers for the effort and energy they bring.”
So, what can touring musicians take from the way the Open Door Centre are supporting mental wellbeing in their local communities? As Zoe says, music has transformative power. Whoever said that it was the most direct art form is right; it can console even as it’s breaking your heart. So while you’re stuck at home, uncertain about when the next tour will come along and where it might take you, there’s a good chance your recordings are out there having a positive impact now.
And when the world inevitably re-opens and you find yourself lumping your hardcases into the back of a splitter van again, what then? Zoe has some very basic, practical advice.
“Touring is psychologically taxing, so the basics of wellbeing apply: try to eat and sleep as well as is possible, and if you’re struggling, be vocal. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings.”
You’re sharing them with strangers every night after all. Eventually, if you aren’t there already, you’re going to need to cross that bridge with your bandmates.