The Royal Northern College of Music has become the first conservatoire in the UK to appoint a dedicated lecturer in health and well-being, to help students deal with the stresses of a professional performance career.
The move has been welcomed within theatre, both from well-being specialists and from the training sector.
Royal Northern, in Manchester, said it had appointed a health and well-being lecturer to address a sharp rise in the number of higher education students reporting mental health concerns.
Sara Ascenso, a clinical psychologist and trained pianist, will help develop the college’s health and wellbeing provision, which includes staff training, new well-being activities and extra counselling when performance pressures are at their peak.
Kathy Hart, RNCM Students’ Union president, said: “When I talk to friends, I see that the work needed to build such a difficult career can come at a price, both physically and psychologically. Like athletes, we must keep in peak condition to make the most of the opportunities we have fought so hard for. The more work we put in, the higher the stakes become – and the more devastating the impact if we are held back by injury or mental-health struggles.”
The appointment has been welcomed across the performing arts industry, including by the National Theatre’s welfare counsellor, Juliet Messenger.
Messenger described the appointment as a “very positive development”, and said she hoped it signalled that the issue is being taken more seriously in the industry.
“It’s important to have as wide a range of services and education strategies in place as possible so that the individual can be supported in a holistic way at all times, but particularly around peak pressure such as performance. Learning to manage under pressure and have an understanding of what can help to do that is a very useful set of skills for life and a career in the arts,” Messenger said.
She added she would welcome the appointment of a dedicated well-being lecturer in drama schools, but stressed that many already have good student support in place around general wellbeing.
Ann Gritton, director of academic affairs at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, said the school was in “total agreement” with Royal Northern over the importance of mental and physical well-being.
“It is essential that drama school students leave prepared for the very specific stresses that performers and production artists can face. At Mountview, we have integrated mental and physical health and wellbeing into the fabric of our teaching and pastoral care,” she said.
The college has a full-time student welfare manager and a team of counselling and learning support staff, and offers students a programme of care that includes workshops in managing anxiety, mental health and nutrition check ups and yoga sessions at the start of the day.
At RADA, existing provision includes a student wellbeing manager and a team of in-house counsellors, and the London drama school has recently introduced a new programme for students, teachers, support staff and professional counsellors to “provide a joined up approach to student wellbeing”.