How students suffer

9:51, 13th May 2019

A surge in demand for student mental health services is producing some innovative solutions, writes Christopher Gunness

‘I became depressed, felt worthless and thought more and more about killing myself,’ says Drew, a second-year student at one of the UK’s leading music academies. ‘It started when I failed to win a strings competition and became nervous and anxious. I dropped out of classes and in the weeks that followed, I turned to drugs and alcohol, telling friends I was going to commit suicide. Eventually I took a year out to see if I could deal with my depression and addiction.’

After nine months of weekly therapy, Drew ‘found the strength’ to return. ‘I take each day at a time,’ he says, ‘as the pressures are so immense. I fear the nerves and anxieties which haunted me will come back. But even if I get through college, the future worries me more. The music profession is so pressurised.’

Drew’s worries about his professional future are shared by many students. At the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the latest figures on uptake for student counselling services suggest that mental health issues may be on the rise, even though rising numbers do not necessarily reflect a rise in pathology.

‘There’s a massive surge in demand for our services and it is growing,’ says Professor Nick Barwick, the Guildhall’s head of counselling. ‘Over the last two years 25 per cent of all students requested some form of support and it is set to rise to 30 per cent by the end of the current academic year. This surge and the overall demand are very much in line with other conservatoires, though conservatoire students have a higher use of counselling services than other higher education institutions.’

Even if I get through college, the future worries me more. The music profession is so pressurised

Barwick argues that his team of 12 part-time counsellors is the largest student counselling service per capita in the UK, in part because they have worked hard to argue their case, and the leadership of the Guildhall has been ‘sensitive, thoughtful and responsive about student mental health needs.’

Musicians use their emotional lives in their work, which is why addressing the mental health of students is increasingly understood not as an add-on but as crucial to nurturing young people to lead creative, productive, artistically satisfying and socially responsible lives. The majority of the students coming to Barwick and his team have said that they are suffering from depression, as well as suicidal feelings, anxiety and a lack of confidence – both as people and as artists. 

With demand growing however, many academies are increasingly ‘signposting’ students to an overstretched NHS or private clinics, particularly where there are chronic problems. But often this leaves students unsupported. Helen Brice is a specialist psychotherapist who receives referrals from the main colleges. ‘Many of those I see are not finding adequate services in the NHS or at their schools. 95 per cent of those who come feel they are not being understood by their teachers and pushed down a path they don’t like. They become very tentative, they stop trusting their own judgment and feel intimidated. The atmosphere can feel invalidating and coercive.’

The trends in UK music academies reflect the wider picture in higher education. The Institute of Public Policy and Research (IPPR) found that over the past five years, 94 per cent of universities have experienced a sharp increase in the number of people trying to access support services, with some institutions noticing a threefold increase.

According to a Unite Students’ Insight report, students scored between 15 per cent to 22 per cent lower than the total UK population on all four wellbeing measures (life satisfaction, life feeling worthwhile, happiness, low levels of anxiety). The number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled in recent years, according to the IPPR.

The emerging trend is towards the creation of an environment in which risks are managed. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland conducts a ‘Fitness to Study’ assessment at the beginning of courses to assess the risk of mental health challenges in students. This is then integrated into the students’ ‘Learning Agreement’ ensuring there is continued support and signposting where necessary.

Music colleges ‘are responding innovatively, holistically and increasingly systematically,’ says Kevin Porter, deputy director at the Royal College of Music, though nothing replaces one-to-one counselling in which old unhelpful ways of thinking and relating are challenged, and new, productive methods are developed. The RCM has one full-time and two part-time counsellors, but its most significant contribution is towards research into mental health issues, advocacy and coordination of best practice among colleges.

The Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science (CPS) is setting the gold standard for academies and the music industry beyond. With ten staff members, ten PhD students and 25 on their Masters programme the CPS combines both academic research and support for students confronting the stresses of performing situations such as exams, auditions and recitals. It was established 20 years ago by Professor Aaron Williamon, an internationally recognised authority, and today operates in conjunction with Imperial College London.

‘The literature traditionally stresses the negatives, the problems,’ says Williamon. ‘But we are seeing and encouraging a fundamental shift away from health as a matter of how an individual engages with illness. It’s about creating a nurturing environment. It’s about how our students interact with other people where they work, learn and play. We give them the tools, both physical and mental, to ensure they can sustain long careers.’

A student uses the Performance Simulator (c) Chris Christodoulou

The jewel in the crown of the CPS is the Performance Simulator – a global first – which recreates digitally the entire performance experience from the green room, the back stage area and the recital, audition or examination. The digital audience can be programmed to cough, boo or allow their mobiles to go off. The whole thing is recorded so that students can review how they responded, learn and apply lessons learned.

‘Some students come back as many as a dozen times,’ says Williamon. ‘By the time they face these situations in the real world, they will have experienced them so many times digitally, we hope that nerves and stress will have been significantly reduced.’

Williamon is passionate about sharing the RCM’s pioneering work. The good news is that most of the UK’s leading music colleges have signed up to the Healthy Conservatoires Network, an ambitious initiative which encourages collaborative research, promotes models of best practice and advises colleges on healthy approaches.
But there is a long way to go. ‘The next step,’ says Williamon, ‘is to make sure that we can influence the policy debate, ensure that best practice is institutionalized throughout the UK’s conservatoires and make sure that no student is ever unsupported and falls between the cracks.’


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