Mark O'Brien, one of the new directors of the Abbey Theatre said in a recent Irish Times interview that the real push in the independent sector for artists and art workers is "to validate their lived existence".
He added, “I think the public is realising art is not something separate to people’s lives – that it’s a core part of what we’re about.”
Reading, listening to music, journaling and making things gave many people comfort during periods of isolation in the Covid-19 pandemic. Some might have also gained small insights into that “lived existence” of novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, songwriters and composers - many of whom spend long periods of time alone.
The romantic image of the artist or writer in the garret has become obsolete in this technologically-driven world where the corporate can also be cool. But, the vulnerability of the creative mind – and the often penurious lifestyle that runs parallel with this talented yet underpaid line of work – is rarely tackled head on.
And because the creative process itself is usually such a private endeavour, creative people are often only validated by society when their film, book, piece of music, art, etc comes under public scrutiny. But being in the public gaze for short sharp periods of time can – in and of itself – be a traumatic experience.
In June, 2020, cognizant of all these challenges, a new organisation sprang forth to offer free counselling – as well as free mentoring and financial/legal advice and mediation services to people working in the creative sector.
Founded by Dave Reid, artist manager who runs the RTÉ Choice Music Prize, Minding Creative Minds is a sincere initiative to support creatives who are suffering from stress, anxiety and/or depression and need professional help to move forwards.
“Being an artist manager, you are kinda the psychotherapist, booker, press person which has given me an insight into how difficult it is being an artist currently. And I thought why isn’t there mental health support for this sector like there is for people in legal, sporting and construction industries?” explains Reid, who has a higher diploma in counselling, a masters in psychotherapy and has worked with the arts and mental health festival, First Fortnight.
“Our guiding light was a survey carried out during First Fortnight in 2016 which found that people working in the creative industry suffer from mental health problems much more than the general population due to the nature of their business, unsociable hours, lack of regular income, etc,” explains Reid.
However, rather than hiring a couple of psychotherapists or counsellors to work specifically for Minding Creative Minds, Reid opted to avail of an established employee assistance programme which offers comprehensive access to confidential face-to-face, video and telephone counselling (1800-814244 and 0800-0903677 from Northern Ireland). There is also live chat with a counsellor. (087-3690010). All of these services are available 24/7.
Initial funds for Minding Creative Minds came from various musical bodies including the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the Irish Recorded Music Association, MCD, Universal Music Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Funds raised from the recorded and televised music sessions, Songs From An Empty Room in July, 2020, and then the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Music allowed it to expand its services to the entire creative sector – estimated to include about 55,000 people.
The aim is to offer short term support while pointing people in the direction of other available services if necessary. As Dr Emelina Ellis, from Minding Creative Minds puts it, "it doesn't have to be a crisis. You don't need to be a breaking point to contact us. We can help people get some perspective and balance on the issues they are facing." A total of 885 people used the service in the first 18 months of its operation with many signalling poor mood, stress, anxiety, relationship issues and career as the main reason for making contact.
"We wanted there to be a phone number people can ring when they are coming off stage or when they are coming back from their studio late at night. My hope is that we're not just expecting people to get up on stage or to produce something – that they are actually being looked after and valued within the sectors between those points in their process," says Emma Matthews, one of the directors of Minding Creative Minds.
Emma Olohan Sarramida, another director of Minding Creative Minds adds, "I've seen a lot of artists struggle when they have children needing to be minded or they need help with elderly or sick parents and they are stuck with a sense of trying to further themselves in their career and being pulled back to [family commitments] and feeling they can't do both."
Kim O’Callaghan, project director with MCD and also on the Minding Creative Minds board, says that “although the music industry is sociable, it can be isolating too. It’s so fast paced and has so many freelance people working long intense hours. Because it all ground to a halt during Covid, a light was shone on the sector and the general public got a better understanding of the different skill sets and roles needed to put on shows, concerts and exhibitions. We’ve been dealing with an industry in crisis mode during Covid. Now, it’s important to keep people in an industry where the vast majority hasn’t worked for two years.”
On the Minding Creative Minds website, musicians, film-makers, photographers, music producers share their personal experiences of mental health struggles. Sally Foran, aka DJ Sally Cinnamon, says "I've been through therapy for about three years, and honestly, it's the best thing that I ever did. And I don't know how anybody in their 30s who's experienced trauma isn't in therapy. I think if you've had a hard time and you're not in therapy, the chances are that you're making someone else's life really difficult."
Fiachra Treacy, singer with Columbia Mills [who offers lots of tips on minding your mental health on his story on mindingcreativeminds.ie] says that he is experiencing his third recession. "I was born in the 1980s. I worked as a carpenter for 10 years, lost jobs and dived into music and now this [the shutdown of gigs during the Covid pandemic]. It affects your confidence when you stop making money. You just feel like a bit of a failure and you know it's not your fault but it can really affect your mental health."
One of the future aims of Minding Creative Minds is to set up areas backstage at gigs where musicians can get support, switch off and step away for a moment if they are experiencing doubt or anti-climax. Monthly meet-and-greet sessions are already up and running as are mentoring sessions and there are plans to launch a mental health podcast and a weekly drop-in centre in Dublin.
How is creative work different to other types of work?
Defining creativity is an invidious task but doing creative work is different to most other types of work. It doesn’t’ always come on demand yet it needs discipline. It need enough space to develop yet not too much to despair. It needs to be inspired by things, people, places yet without distractions or deadlines. When in progress, it needs to be respected, not demeaned or criticised or judged by either the artist or others.
It’s fragile, mutable, retrievable, malleable, spontaneous, immeasurable, uncontained – almost always unfinished but sometimes overworked. It transforms the creator by bringing a internal sense of satisfaction that may be swelled by appreciation, belief, understanding and sometimes awe of others. But ultimately, it lives or dies on that internal desire, impulse and drive to do more.