“It is often in the intersection that you find the most value.” - Kamran Ahmed
Music and Mental Health; Helping people in creative ways.
Kamran Ahmed |
Psychiatrist/Founder, Rave Reviewz
Sydney based psychiatrist, Kamran Ahmed, always had an innate curiosity about human behaviour, which led him to a career in Psychiatry after medical school. After almost 15 years as a practicing psychiatrist in both the UK and Australian public health systems, Kamran is now combining his love of electronic music and his practice in mental health to nurture a more unconventional career as the founder of Rave Reviewz - a start-up initially created to support Sydney’s struggling nightlife. Kamran’s mission with Rave Reviewz is driven by his desire to use the medium of music to create awareness and remove the stigma around mental illness. While at first glance, the two topics may seem unrelated, in this conversation Kamran explains how “music needs mental health, and mental health needs music”.
So Kamran, tell me more about what you do, where you are right now and what you are ambitious about?
Hey Natalie. So I’m a psychiatrist, which is my main profession, and I’ve been doing that for coming up to 15 years now. I trained in medicine and then I specialised in psychiatry, which involves treating people with mental health problems.
Along the way, I’ve also dabbled in other more creative pursuits, like making films. I made some films about mental health and started a medical film festival in the UK called Medfest, which incorporates a lot of mental health in the programme. In those days it felt like my main purpose was to try and change people’s attitudes to mental illness, tackle the stigma that often goes with it and encourage people to seek help for their problems.
I’ve also always been a music fan, especially electronic music and when I moved to Sydney from the UK for a change of scene, I found that the night life here was really struggling, because they’ve got these lockout laws and lots of restrictions around nightlife. I started a project called Rave Reviewz which was designed to support and promote electronic music and events here in Sydney. It went from being like a Trip Advisor style platform for nightlife, to an online electronic music magazine and now it’s turned into a sort of online TV channel, with lots of video content. Along the way I also went back to my roots and became aware of the high prevalence of mental health in the music industry and realised that music is a great way to address mental health issues and do all those things that I had been doing earlier on in my career.
Now we’re exploring music and mental health more. We did a campaign and an event last year, called ‘Music on My Mind’ – which was a rave to raise money for mental health charities, and content around mental health all connected to music. Music is so accessible and so universal, it’s a great way to get people interested in the conversation around those sorts of issues, which can sometimes be a bit threatening and uncomfortable for people. This year we’re planning to expand the Music on my Mind concept further.
I’m also still doing my psychiatry work and a bit of writing on mental health… that’s what I’m doing in a nutshell, which is a little bit all over the place as you can probably tell!
It may feel all over the place, but to me, it all sounds very connected. What I hear is that you’ve combined your professional with your personal, your creativity with your knowledge, your education with your personal passion…
Well, after having been a full time doctor for 13 to 14 years, I was doing other projects in my spare time, but I hadn’t committed to anything outside of psychiatry in the way that I have this past year with Rave Reviewz. I dropped psychiatry down to part time and spent more of my time on the start-up than I was doing psychiatry. It definitely made me step outside of my comfort zone. A salaried job in health care is quite protected, you know where your next pay check is coming from, you know exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it, and it’s quite structured in terms of career progression. When you step outside of that and you’re trying to build your own thing, all of those things go out the window - there’s a lot of uncertainty around that.
I’ve realised that the core principles in what I’ve been doing throughout my career are wanting to help people with their mental health, and getting through their lives, but in creative ways.
It forced me to really stop and think about what it is that I want to do and why I want to do it. I haven’t fully gotten to the final answers yet, but I’ve realised that the core principles in what I’ve been doing throughout my career are wanting to help people with their mental health, and getting through their lives, but in creative ways. So whether that’s film, or writing or music - I think I realised that I need all of those things to feel like I’m living a full life. That’s what I’m exploring now - keeping those things really connected. That process has been really helpful in helping me eliminate certain other things, because before I was doing a lot of academic research in psychiatry and a lot of management and leadership stuff as well. I’m kind of putting those things on hold while I really get into what it is that drives me, which is helping people in creative ways. That’s what I’m ambitious about.
Mental health is such a broad topic - what do you see happening in society and your work? What do you see as some of the key mental health problems that you want to help people with in your field?
Mental health is broad, but for me personally, I like the fact that there are a lot of different issues to try and tackle within that one field. Sometimes, mental health gets used incorrectly as a phrase, because mental health means the state of your mental wellbeing, which is different from mental illness, where people experience problems.
We need to raise awareness of mental health problems and tackle the stigma that goes with it, so people will actually accept that it is a problem that they’ve got and don’t feel that shame, guilt and judgement from society. That in itself is a lifetime’s work.
There are so many things to address to get people to the point of actually understanding what it is and to believe that they have a mental illness, if they have one. We need to raise awareness of mental health problems and tackle the stigma that goes with it, so people will actually accept that it is a problem that they’ve got and don’t feel that shame, guilt and judgement from society. That in itself is a lifetime’s work. The next step of getting people help from mental health services, is getting them in through the door. There’s a lot of stuff to be done there too.
In my work as a psychiatrist, I’m trying to diagnose and treat people who have an illness. In my other work, the more creative stuff, I’m addressing the earlier stages of that pathway, which is the awareness, the stigma, the help-seeking. The music and mental health campaign also involves fundraising for mental health charities - another avenue you can take to help people to do that work through funding them.
We do interviews with big DJs and ask them about their mental health - them opening up about that might make it easier for others who look up to them to do the same.
What do you see are some of the challenges that you want to help with in the music industry?
When I started working in the music industry and got to know more people who operate in that world, I became more acutely aware of the pressures that they go through, the higher rates of mental illness and a lot of the stresses they face. In the music industry, the conditions are such that they lend themselves to mental illness - erratic sleep patterns, late nights, a lot of drugs and alcohol in your working environment. People also experience anxiety around performance, which makes it quite easy to reach for drugs and alcohol as a crutch for those things. There have also been a lot of really high profile deaths by suicide in the music industry - there was Avicii recently, Keith Flint of The Prodigy.
In an Australian study, entertainment workers (music, theatre and film) had double the rates of suicide attempts, five times the rate of depression and ten times the rate of anxiety - pretty alarming statistics. I thought that it would be worth doing something to highlight these issues. Music needs mental health and mental health needs music. Music is a good way to present the message of mental health differently. We do interviews with big DJs and ask them about their mental health - them opening up about that might make it easier for others who look up to them to do the same.
How is your work being received by people in the industry, and from people on the music scene?
It’s had a really positive reception, which has been great. I think the conversation around mental health is changing, especially in the last 2-3 years. I’ve been working on this issue for years now and for ages it kind of felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall. Now things are starting to shift, which is awesome. When we were posting a lot of content around mental health connected to music during the month of our awareness campaign, it got a good reaction and lots of other people in the music community were sharing their experiences too.
When I did start converging the two, I felt less dissonance - you know, that feeling where you are kind of disconnected from yourself.
I love that we are at a time now where these intersections of industries are all kind of merging and really beneficial connections are being made, I think it’s really important.
I agree, absolutely, I think that is another real benefit of stepping outside of what it is that you’re used to doing and doing something else. Because it’s often in the intersection that you find the most value. Initially, I was doing psychiatry and when I dropped down to two days a week of psychiatry and what felt like 10 days a week of the start-up [laughs], they were very separate in a sense. When I was introducing myself pitching for investment for Rave Reviewz, I would say, “I’m a psychiatrist” and then I would start talking about Rave Reviewz, but people would ask, “what’s the connection between that and this?” It didn’t really make sense because it felt a bit disjointed. Then, when I did start converging the two, I felt less dissonance - you know, that feeling where you are kind of disconnected from yourself and it started to make more sense.
Because you are both in the music scene and in public health, with your psychiatry work, how do you take care of your own overall health?
I think when you launch a start-up, as I’m sure anyone starting their own business of any description knows, it’s really demanding physically and mentally. It feels like you have to put in so much time and it’s all consuming, there’s no clocking off at 5 or 6 o’clock. In the past year and a bit I’ve found it difficult to contain what it is that I’m doing with Rave Reviewz, because I would work on it all hours, and it was affecting my personal life. With a start-up, there are all these other challenges because you often don’t really know what it is that you’re trying to do, you’re trying to figure it out as you go along. You don’t have much structure when you’re doing your own thing, which is different to a salaried job, so I’m trying to structure things more now and have more downtime.
I’m also finding that now that I’m more involved in stuff that I find nourishing, like music, that that in itself is good for my well-being. With psychiatry, my goal is to help other people get through their lives, and the creative stuff that I’m doing like Rave Reviewz helps me get through my life. Again, that idea of convergence and bringing things together that are important to you in to your day-to-day life somehow, can be really beneficial, I think.
Read more and get involved in Kamran’s work at Rave Reviewz, Music on My Mind and Medfest. Kamran is also a featured writer for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and SBS, where can read more of his work and thought leadership on the intersections of mental health and racism, bias and discrimination, politics, culture and music.