Caring for the Live Music Capital of the World

UT Health Austin psychologist provides mental health support for local musicians

Reviewed by: Lloyd Berg, PhD, ABPP
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A masked string orchestra performing with the Texas State Capitol building in the background.

Listening to music causes the body’s nervous system to release dopamine, a hormone associated with your brain’s reward system, and endorphins, natural “feel-good” chemicals that help elevate mood, reduce stress, relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression, ease pain, and provide comfort. “Despite all that music has to offer to listeners, the mental health needs of the artists who create and perform that music often fly under the radar,” shares Lloyd Berg, PhD, ABPP, a board-certified psychologist in UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences.

A lifelong music lover, in 2009 Dr. Berg accepted a position on the board of SIMS Foundation, an Austin nonprofit named for the late artist Sims Ellison that provides mental health services to local musicians and their families. “As a clinician and researcher, I felt this was a wonderful way to bring together my passions of mental health and music by serving musicians in their mental health endeavors,” says Dr. Berg, who went on to serve on the organization’s board for eight years, including two years as the Chair of SIMS Foundation.

During this time, Dr. Berg discovered a gap in scientific understanding of musician and their mental health. “A lot of the existing academic literature showed that musicians had much higher rates of depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance misuse, and suicide rates compared to the general population, but there was very little written about whether mental health interventions for the musician population are effective,” explains Dr. Berg. “Being on the board of the SIMS Foundation, I was aware that our organization was achieving wonderful outcomes in treating musicians. This sparked my interest in conducting further research into musician mental health.”

Explore how a new initiative at Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas uses live music to promote patient wellbeing.

<br>More Than Meets the Eye

Dr. Berg’s findings have countered popular misconceptions about musicians and their attitudes towards mental health treatment. “People often stereotype musicians as either lazy and hedonistic or as tortured artists who intentionally embrace emotional suffering to advance their craft,” shares Dr. Berg. “We found that musicians actually highly value mental health, but a lot of them lack access to quality mental health services.”

Another focus of Dr. Berg’s research is identifying the factors that contribute to poor mental health among musicians. His team surveyed over 300 musicians and found that depression and anxiety were closely linked to the occupational and financial stresses of the music industry.

“Musicians face a lot of struggles with job and career insecurity, and many musicians don’t know when their next gig will be, which makes financial planning difficult,” explains Dr. Berg. “To supplement low or inconsistent earnings, many musicians work additional part-time jobs, usually in the service industry so that they have the flexibility to go on tour when the opportunity arises.”

While touring can be a financial lifeline, it also presents unique mental health obstacles for performers. “A lot of interpersonal and professional conflicts occur on the road, sleep hygiene often goes out the window, and touring musicians are separated from family and other support systems for prolonged periods of time.”

A Growing Challenge

While musicians have faced these occupational and financial concerns for generations, performers experienced them more acutely during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Locally, a lot of music venues shut down temporarily or went out of business permanently during lockdown, so there are fewer places to perform,” says Dr. Berg.

The pandemic’s dampening effect on live music comes at a time when concerts are more important than ever for an artist’s survival. “Back in the 1990s, musicians used to earn roughly 30% of their money from touring activities,” explains Dr. Berg, “As revenues from recordings started getting squeezed by the streaming industry, touring now accounts for about 75% of a musician’s earnings.”

The skyrocketing cost of living in Austin that has occurred in recent years is yet another obstacle facing those with a career in the city’s music industry. “We are the Live Music Capital of the World, but many of our musicians can’t afford to live in town anymore,” claims Dr. Berg.

As the causes of mental health difficulties among musicians become more well known, Dr. Berg says that addressing these underlying issues will require a collaborative effort at the local and national level. “My hope is that government and music industry leaders pay more attention to the importance of the health of their talent to strategically support the music industry moving forward,”

What You Can Do

<br>For Musicians

<br>Keep Disappointments in Check

“A lot of musicians consider their art a calling but are often very frustrated that being talented and being persistent does not necessarily translate to greater opportunity or success,” explains Dr. Berg. “This can be discouraging and have significant impact on musicians as they first start out. On top of that, surveys show that out of all musicians, young musicians tend to have the highest rates of anxiety and depression and are also less likely to reach out and address those concerns.”

Stay in Tune With Your Needs

“Musicians take great care of their instruments and equipment,” says Dr. Berg, “and it’s just important for musicians to be thinking about maintaining themselves and their own emotional health and wellbeing.”

Artists located in Austin that are seeking mental health treatment can consider connecting with SIMS Foundation, which provides counseling, psychiatric medication management, and substance use recovery services to members of the Austin music industry and their families.

    For Fans

    <br>Give What You Can

    “Fans can support artists by donating to nonprofits,” shares Dr. Berg. “On Amplify Austin Day, an annual campaign to promote charitable giving in Central Texas, all donations will be matched with additional philanthropic support.” In addition to SIMS Foundation, music lovers can support the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), which helps low-income working musicians access healthcare services in Austin, including access to primary care, hearing loss prevention, dental care, and wellness programs.

    Get Out There

    “Music fans can discover up-and-coming artists at local clubs and small venues,” says Dr. Berg. “Not only will you be exposed to phenomenal entertainment, but you will also be supporting our local music scene.”

    Headed to a music festival? Explore these tips.

    <br>The following radio stations are affiliated with The University of Texas at Austin and allow locals to stay plugged in to the city’s emerging talent:

    • KUTX 98.9 FM: A full-time music service that broadcasts from the UT Austin campus and provides updates to listeners about live music happenings around the city
    • KVRX 91.7 FM: A UT Austin student-run radio station champions independent acts from Austin and beyond

    “Engaging with the local music scene allows more than the artists and venues to thrive,” shares Dr. Berg. “I strongly encourage people in Austin to go out and experience the city’s live music scene for their own mental health, because your brain is better on music.”

    For more information about the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, click here.

    About UT Health Austin

    UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.