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The pilot project helps Nova Scotia musicians access mental health care

Musician Hayley Ryerson was working on a cruise ship in 2019 where part of the compensation arrangement involved a weekly visit to the ship’s captain to get $200 in cash for travel expenses.

It was on these visits to the Bear River, NS, fiddler and violinist said she heard repeated bigoted comments from the captain.

“And that was, like, one of the more professional gigs that I had,” she said.

She said some of her other gig experiences have included being tapped on the butt and explaining why she should be compensated for her work.

“I don’t see other people going to work and having to explain to their boss why they should be paid for busing tables all day,” said Ryerson. “And it made me really angry.”

A woman looks away from the camera in a promotional photo.
Musician Jessie Brown says she’s noticed the music industry offering more mental health supports for musicians. (Jessie Brown)

A survey conducted by the East Coast Music Association in 2018 found members reported having mental health issues at rates higher than Canadians. They also faced barriers in accessing mental health care and many reported they lived below the poverty line.

This was before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down concerts, a vital source of income for musicians.

To address the mental health challenges musicians face, the East Coast Music Association is providing support in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. The program is called Sound Minds.

Ryerson welcomes this.

“I think it’s really important to open up these spaces within our music community to start talking about these challenges that we’re all touching, we’re all dealing with, but for some reason not talking about,” she said.

Jessie Brown, winner of the 2018 ECMA Rock Recording of the Year for her album Keeping Appearancessays the support is needed.

“Years ago, before these kinds of programs were introduced, at a lot of the conferences and the industry kinds of events, you were told to feel lucky that you were there … we didn’t have access to anything and so a lot of times it was substances or learning on each other or burning out,” she said.

Errin Williams is a clinical social worker who runs the Sound Minds program. For musicians seeking mental health support, she helps connect them with the appropriate programming whether that’s in the community or a counseling session with her.

How to get help

The first step for musicians from Nova Scotia to get support from Sound Minds is to send an email to [email protected], which Williams reviewed.

“When we look at the social determinants of health, there are some that speak very much to people who work in the music industry,” he said.

These include the precarious nature of the work and the isolation musicians can experience by being on the road for their work and missing out on important life events, such as weddings, funerals and birthdays.

“Sometimes there can be a disconnect from friends and family,” said Williams.

While Sound Minds is a pilot program, she says the hope is it becomes permanent.

She said around 90 musicians have used the program’s one-on-one counselling. Some have told her they were having suicidal thoughts and the programming saved their lives.

A woman is shown on stage at an outdoor music festival.
Errin Williams is a clinical social worker who runs the Sound Minds program. She’s shown in an undated photo from the Harmony Bazaar Festival of Women & Song in Lockeport, NS She’s one of its founders. (Submitted by Errin Williams)

Brown used the counseling in 2021.

“Having access to weekly therapy and not worrying about the debt that it would inevitably put me into is a wonderful feeling and I know a lot of artists agree,” he said.

Support groups

Sound Minds also includes support groups for women in the music industry and another for individuals living with addictions or who are concerned about their substance use.

Ryerson facilitates the women in the music industry group, which meets online. She said participants find comfort in knowing they’re not alone with the challenges they face.

“We can feel seen and understood,” said Ryerson.

Anyone struggling with mental health can call 911 in an emergency, or the province’s toll-free mental health crisis line at 1-888-429-8167, which is available 24 hours, seven days a week. To self-refer to a Community Mental Health and Addictions clinic, call 1-855-922-1122 from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm AT on weekdays.