Musicians responding to a major new study reported severe levels of stress and depression, and extremely severe levels of anxiety.
Over 30% of professional musicians have battled with an eating disorder at some point in their life, according to major new research on the mental health of adult musicians.
Musicians also endure “severe” levels of stress and depression, “extremely severe” levels of anxiety, and a series of pressures that discourage them from reporting mental illnesses.
“A musician’s unpredictable work schedule, performing and low income are major factors which both from a mental (loneliness, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, substance abuse) and practical (irregular meals when travelling) aspect draw them into a vicious circle of unhealthy eating,” the report finds.
It continues: “Clinicians can be made further aware of the increased prevalence of eating disorders in musicians, which is possibly due to extra pressures, and therefore, provide special care to optimize their health, well-being and in turn their performance.”
The research, conducted by University of London academics Marianna Evangelia Kapsetaki and Charlie Easmon, intended to assess the prevalence and causes of eating disorders in musicians.
It follows research by Help Musicians UK, which found around 60% of professional musicians have suffered from a psychological issue and almost half have experienced problems with alcohol.
Kapsetaki and Easmon surveyed 301 professional and amateur musicians – working as singers, instrumentalists, conductors and composers – to see if the prevalence of eating disorders was affected by the type of music being performed, age, gender, income, career, or other risk factors, such as social isolation and perfectionism.
It concludes that style of music has a limited impact on mental illness, but notes the effects were more pronounced for soloists than those working in groups, for those travelling abroad than staying in the country, and for students rather than teachers.
Similarly, it finds the most commonly reported triggers for eating disorders were exams, stress and concerts, and eating disorders occurred most frequently during teenage years.
The report notes musicians are particularly at risk of eating disorders because of society’s focus on thinness and attractiveness, which is magnified in the music industry.
In addition, it highlights pressure from parents and teachers, competitiveness, peer pressure – especially within groups of musicians – and puberty as other factors, which combine to present a “weak point in the control of musicians’ eating habits”, as this is when musicians begin to experience heightened body awareness and to launch their careers.
“Another factor that can induce further pressure to a musician’s already stressful life is their relatively low income, which also may affect their dietary choices… 41.8% of the musicians would change their diet if they had a higher income,” the report notes.
Although the median Body Mass Index (BMI) of the musicians surveyed was found to be in the normal range, the authors warn that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses and mental health challenges in music are comparatively under-researched compared to those in artforms such as dance.
Not reporting concerns
A key concern for the report’s authors is the degree to which mental illness is underdiagnosed. For instance, it notes eating disorders are mostly identified in females, though males also have a “high incidence” of the disorder.
It adds musicians may avoid reporting health issues such as eating disorders because of pressure from managers, or the “fear of losing a long-awaited career”, and laments the lack of medical attention for some illnesses. Over a third of symphony orchestral musicians and over 80% of opera singers are classified as having orthorexia nervosa – an obsession with eating foods the sufferer considers healthy – but the condition is not reported as an official diagnosis.
Commenting on the report, Jonathon Inskip, Director of Health and Welfare at Help Musicians UK (HMUK), told AP: “Due to the nature of their work, professional musicians often feel a pressure to present a ‘perfect’ image in terms of technical performance and sometimes physical image.
“Late nights touring away from home, coupled with unpredictable eating and sleeping patterns, add to the physical and psychological pressures of the industry.
“Eating disorders, in particular, are complex areas of mental health, often relating to the perceived pressure to be ‘perfect’. The triggers can vary, ranging from bio-chemical, physical and social, through to insecurity and low self-esteem.
“At HMUK, we are uniquely positioned as an independent charity to support musicians in need. While there are a number of organisations that support musicians struggling with eating disorders and mental health, a first point of contact being your GP, we understand the complexity of being a musician and recognise the need to provide personalised support for those working in the industry.”