Music, Mental Health & Young People part 1: Local Context

Week after week we read reports about the rising number of students disclosing a mental illlness when they arrive at university (Krause, 2017), of how ‘girls and young women are experiencing a “gathering crisis” in their mental health linked to conflict with friends, fears of body image and pressures created by social media’ (Campbell, 2017). That in an average class of 30 schoolchildren, 3 will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder; of how social media platforms, described as more addictive than cigarettes, are detrimental to young people’s mental health and well being (2016, RSPH).

I have been running music projects for teenagers for 15 years now and concerns about young people’s mental health has always been at the forefront of our work. Trends in music, like grunge, and emo, influence how openly young people speak about their mental health through lyrics, song choice and conversation. Growing up in the 90’s and immersed in the grunge scene, I understand this. I played in a band, wore black eye liner, listened to Nirvana and wrote noisy songs about teenage emotions. Not much different to the young bands I work with today you would think.
Except  that the world has changed beyond recognition since then.

Not that long ago, you had to queue for the phonebox if you wanted to have a private conversation with your friends, you only knew about the parties you got invited to and school bullies stayed within the school gates.
But the development and accessibilty of smart phones and the constant availablity of the internet has changed the face of how young people communicate, connect, share experiences, consume music, make friends, date, access news, promote gigs, express themselves … in short, how they live their lives.

Many of the young people we work with today have grown up never knowing what life was like without ‘instant access to the internet and social media’ and it has become an integral part of most of our everyday lives. 91% of 16-24 year old “digital natives” use the internet for social networking purposes and for 82% of people, this usage is daily (RSPH, 2017.p.6). Though it is important to recognise tha social media has a multitude of positives, it is also linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression, low self esteem, body dysmorphia, cyberbullying , poor sleep and the new phenomenon ‘Fear of Missing Out’ or FoMO (RSPH).

For those of us supporting young people within educational, youth and community settings these terms are becoming all to familar. Its not uncommon to come across a young person who is upset during a session because of an incident on social media, or to have to deal with a panic attack or coach someone through performance anxiety because they too scared to go on stage for fear of being judged by their peers.
Though we encourage no phones in our sessions, we have yet to take the step of asking participants to hand in their phones, in some part because of the sheer terror this idea envokes in our young people! But we do recognise the harmful and disruptive impact that constant access to the internet has upon engagment in sessions and on young people’s moods. A young person could be totally inmmersed in playing in their band one minute and then after a quick glance at their phone, flee the room in tears because of a something they have just seen. In fact, I have noticed that young people’s moods and level of engagement often takes a nose dive after a break because they have spent 15 mins looking at their phones lost in the digital world.

Couple the constant use of social media with poor sleep habits, poor diet, the fact that 9 children in a classroom of 30 are living in poverty (, pressures to achieve, pressure to care for siblings, managing relationships … and it is hardly surprising that our young people are struggling to cope with maintaining positive mental health.
Indeed, a survey carried out by YoungMinds revealed that ‘over 5000 young people felt their top concerns were the impact of social media and the online world, lack of access to help, school stress and unemployment.

So how can we, as people who are often the first point of contact for young people, offer support during this rising mental health crisis? Through writing this report, I took a step back at the work we do at More Music to consider if what we were doing already might be having a positive impact on the mental health and well being of our participants.

next week … young people share their experiences of how taking part in musical activities has a positive impact on mental health and well being.


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anita holford's picture

Great post, it's an important conversation to have in our sector: what impact our work already has on young people's mental health (in all areas, from positive role modelling to opening up new ways of experiencing and listening to music, to helping YP to access music making and all the benefits it brings to mental wellbeing - mindfulness, coping strategy, etc), and what more we might be able to do.

At The Music Works in Gloucestershire we've been piloting a programme, funded by Youth Music, NHS, amongst others, that takes our music mentoring work one step further to create a programme, and develop it with young people, to specifically improve mental wellbeing. We're coming to the end of the first phase and results will be out soon. We've learned a lot - particularly from the young people themselves who've helped shaped each iteration of the programme. We'll be sharing what we've learned very soon. Rhythmix in Brighton have been running a programme with the same aims, and Noise Solution in Bury St Edmunds have a model which is showing some strong results around various factors including mental wellbeing.

In the meantime see the blog from one of our music leaders and also some info here and we look forward to reading the next part of your blog Rachel and continuing the conversation.