Musicians Are Much More Likely to Use Psychotherapy

It's unclear if they're more neurotic than the rest of us, or simply more open to seeking help.
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(Photo: Roman Harak/Flickr)

(Photo: Roman Harak/Flickr)

Sigmund Freud was, by his own admission, "almost incapable of attaining any pleasure" from music. Musicians, in contrast, are drawn to his insights, as well as those of the psychologists who came after him.

According to a recently published study from Norway, musicians in that nation are three times more likely to utilize psychotherapy than members of the general workforce. They're also 50 percent more likely to use psychotropic medications such as antidepressants.

"Musicians reported higher use of psychotherapy than all other major occupational groups," reports a research team led by psychiatrist Jonas Vaag. This discovery, the researchers write in the journal Psychology of Music, is "consistent with our previous findings indicating increased rates of psychological distress in musicians."

Vaag and his colleagues used data from a 2013 survey of 1,607 working musicians, conducted by their union. They compared it with a sample of 2,550 workers who took part in the 2012 "Norwegian level of living" survey.

Therapists and musicians both believe in the importance of listening to inner voices.

Both asked participants whether they had consulted a psychiatrist or psychologist during the past 12 months, and whether they had used any sedatives, antidepressants, hypnotics, or medications treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder over the past four weeks.

"Overall, musicians had three-fold higher odds of use of psychotherapy," the researchers report. "This pattern seems consistent across different groups of musicians."

Their odds of using of mood-related drugs was, overall, about 50 percent higher than the general workforce. But this figure varied widely between groups of musicians. Rock musicians, string players, and keyboard instrumentalists "reported two- to four-fold increased odds" of using such medications.

The results are in line with Vaag's previous findings that, compared to the general workforce, Norwegian musicians are roughly twice as likely to report feeling depressed (20.1 percent vs. 10 percent) and anxious (14.7 percent vs. 7.1 percent).

This may be more evidence for the much-debated link between creativity and mental-health issues. Then again, a more banal answer might suffice: "Our sample of musicians reported a high educational level, which in turn has been linked to more widespread use of psychotherapeutic health care," the researchers note.

"The observations could indicate that musicians have a lower threshold of seeking psychotherapeutic help than other occupational groups," they write. "But it may also suggest that musicians respond better to psychotherapy."

Perhaps musicians are simply more in touch with their emotional needs, and thus more willing to seek help. After all, personality research has found they tend to score higher than average on both neuroticism and "openness to experience"—which presumably extends to openness to seeking professional help.

And, while Freud might not have appreciated it, there is some overlap between the realms of the therapist's office and the concert hall. In both, honest emotional expression is prized.

While their definition of the term may vary, therapists and musicians both believe in the importance of listening to inner voices.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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