If the dBs Berlin staff were comic book superheroes, Hannah Deans would be Wonder Woman. When she rode in with the breeze for our canalside coffee, the events and student experience lead wasn’t wearing a cape – or a skimpy outfit, for that matter – but she had the heroic expression of someone who had just worked her day off and supported a friend’s live gig the previous evening.
It was timely that I should meet the dBs Dialogues creator in the midst of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek. With the latest series on mental health and creativity just wrapped, it felt like the perfect opportunity to touch base with Hannah on the ideas and inspirations behind the topics of discussion – topics that I soon found out were extremely close to her heart.
As someone who has personally experienced mental illness, our catch-up also reminded me how uplifting breaking up a busy workday with an hour in the bustle of Berlin can be. Immersed in writing and music, I’m an introvert with a keyboard for vocal chords and a dark techno heartbeat. Like many creatives, I’ve long shouldered the burden of depression and anxiety, but I’ve come to learn that if there’s any cure, it’s communication.
So take some time out, indulge in a delicious beverage, find yourself a slice of sunshine, and join us as we continue the conversation on how to be bold in your expression of self-care.
Meet the Maker
“I wanted to stir things up internally as well as externally. Talking about things is really important if change is going to happen.”
Hi, Hannah! First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and all the amazing things you do at dBs Berlin.
I oversee our major events, showcases and Guest Sessions as well as being the creator of dBs Dialogues. I also work with partner organisations to develop a wide range of exciting and challenging opportunities to create a unique student experience – whether that’s volunteering at a film festival, engaging with tech opportunities, or going to extracurricular events.
What is the purpose of dBs Dialogues?
To open up conversation around difficult subjects. The series was originally born out of a desire to talk about women in music production. I saw this as a really relevant conversation given the gender ratio in the school at the time – in both the staff and student bodies. I wanted to stir things up internally as well as externally. Talking about things is really important if change is going to happen.
I attended a female:pressure event at SoundCloud HQ, organised by Lena Kocisova (akkamiau), and from there we started working on a joint event, which quickly evolved into a whole series. We looked at the issue from the question of why weren’t more women studying music production, posing different hypotheses for discussion. We worked really closely on the first series, with the format of a “dialogue” (i.e. using the Socratic Method) coming from her, although the format is more informal now. I want to give a shout out to her though as she was really amazing and contributed so much. The Dialogues wouldn’t have existed in the format that it is without her.
So, when did you decide you wanted to discuss mental health?
I raised my desire to talk about mental health quite early on. Initially, the senior staff were hesitant because we were still so young as a school and it’s such a sensitive topic. So we did the female topic and that was a success, and then I was like, ‘Right I’m going to do the mental health thing.’
What was really nice was that as soon as I mentioned it to the students, they were all really positive about the subject. They were all like, ‘Yes we need to talk about this, please do this.’ So there was this huge difference. I don’t know whether it was a generational thing, but I think it was interesting that the younger students were so enthusiastic about having that conversation.
“It’s just part of being human, and managing your mental health the way you manage the rest of your physical health.”
Yeah, I think mental health is gaining a lot of awareness in all areas, especially the creative field. Perhaps it’s because the internet makes it easier than ever to communicate and share complex feelings. Quite often, you see very successful creatives put their neck on the line, so to speak, opening up about their vulnerabilities on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. And just as often, a mini support network opens up – not just for that person, but the followers too. Of course, it’s a double-edged sword, as the internet and social media can definitely also have a negative impact on your mental health.
Yeah, it’s really a funny and complicated thing. It’s just part of being human, and managing your mental health the way you manage the rest of your physical health. It should be talked about. It’s the fact that, as a normal person you go up and down and you have bad times and you need to look after yourself through that. Versus when it goes outside of “normal” and is a diagnosable illness.
It can be a muddy line if it’s not openly discussed, but it’s also really important to be aware of instead of just jumping to the conclusion that we’re all sick and we need to be medicated. I believe a lot of these things can be managed with the right help and support. A lot of it is stress, and that’s a big issue within the music industry; there are a lot of factors that add stress and anxiety. Often the very nature of the business perpetuates the problem. It’s something that you can see in the Help Musicians UK report that was put out last year.
“It was this idea of having a practical resource for what you can actually do about it.”
I saw that actually, and it didn’t surprise me at all. But still, when you see the statistics, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ So how did you land on the topic of mental health in the creative industries and the individual discussion points?
How I came to some of the topics for the mental health discussion was when I was snuck into the Canadian embassy Berlinale party – my friend managed to blag my way in, which is quite difficult [laughing]. I was in the middle of the female Dialogues series and I was talking with a producer, Richard Warden, about wanting to do the next series on mental health. He happened to work for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, and he was also the film lead for the UK mental health board. Now he has moved on to focus on documentary producing. He turned out to be a fortuitous connection and we stayed in touch. He was really beneficial in this topic because he had done lots of these panel discussions and was working in that area.
So, we talked through some really helpful conversations on how you approach this subject and how you talk about mental health, especially amongst creative people and artists. From there, some of the topics started coming out, for example the myth of the tortured genius. It was meant to be tortured genius, but I put creative genius. When I invited Richard to facilitate this panel he really liked the angle ‘creative’ genius gave it so we rolled with it.
The harm reduction session was initially focused around these ideas of self-medicating. Then, from talking to Anna Codrea-Rado who had done a lot of work on harm reduction, we added that topic in. It was this idea of having a practical resource for what you can actually do about it, because the partying thing is a really big issue here.
“I think that often the nature of what an artist is doing is so personal; the work that they are exposing themselves to is in itself a vulnerability and a sensitivity, but also a strength.”
Yeah, I thought that was a really good one because I can imagine some schools would be reluctant to touch on the drug issue, but in Berlin it’s quite a prevalent thing.
For each of the topics we did, there is so much more depth we can go into. For that topic in particular, we want to follow up more and get some active support networks in place. It’s a very real issue where education and openness is so important to make sure students don’t get lost.
Do you think that creative people are more prone to mental illness or that it’s more to do with the environment they work in?
This is a controversial question to answer. I think it’s the environment. In my opinion, this idea of the fragility of creativity is a myth. I think that often the nature of what an artist is doing is so personal; the work that they are exposing themselves to is in itself a vulnerability and a sensitivity, but also a strength. I think also there’s almost a cultural acceptance of creative people being like that. For people in a lot of other industries, mental health is much more taboo. I’m pretty sure that there are some hardcore mental illnesses going on within lawyers and accountants, but it’s much more taboo to talk about it.
There’s this accepted idea that if you’re an artist, you’re going to have an element of crazy. Part of that is what society accepts as ‘normal.’ Being an artist, it’s not always that you have a mental illness. It’s just that you have a different way of interacting with society and a different way of expressing yourself that society does not deem normal, and therefore crazy – but it’s not actually crazy. It’s probably less crazy than the person who does a nine-to-five and stays in a little square box – that should be seen as insanity!
“I think a cultural shift needs to happen. It should be totally acceptable for someone to be a musician, be a painter, a dancer or an actor, and have regular stabilities.”
Yeah, exactly. There’s a stigma around being an artist or a creative, because people don’t think you have a ‘real job.’ Also – I’ve certainly experienced it myself – there’s often additional pressure from parents when they don’t support your career choice.
That’s another thing that adds anxiety for a lot of people; this idea that it isn’t a real job and how can you support yourself? You have to constantly be fighting, day to day, to have your stability and be creative at the same time. It’s this idea that if you’re going to be a musician, you have to suffer. I think a cultural shift needs to happen. It should be totally acceptable for someone to be a musician, be a painter, a dancer or an actor, and have regular stabilities.
Pressure to be something you’re not can be very toxic and destructive. Whether that’s coming from your family, partner or yourself. I was lucky to come from a family of artists, so I almost have the opposite problem [laughing].
“At dBs Berlin, there is this idea of education that we’re not just here to teach you how to use a mixing desk or operate a camera; it’s education across the board in preparation for becoming your own idea of successful.”
In the music industry, there is often also a great deal of pressure from the team of people around the artist. For example, with the recent news about Avicii, who had reportedly been self-medicating with alcohol for his anxiety. I read in Mixmag about how his team were pushing him to tour even though he’d just been hospitalised for a burst gallbladder and had his appendix removed. In my opinion, he was just a cash cow for them. I thought that was a crazy example of how the music industry can be really toxic.
Yeah, it’s weird that the artists aren’t awarded the same standard of care. Say if someone in their marketing team, like a social media manager, wanted to quit, she could just hand in her notice. These people are all replaceable in some way.
In your opinion, what part should educational institutions play?
I think it’s in the name: education. Especially at dBs Berlin, there is this idea of education that we’re not just here to teach you how to use a mixing desk or operate a camera; it’s education across the board in preparation for becoming your own idea of successful. That includes how you handle yourself, how you interact with others, and learning to think about self-care and how it comes into being a successful artist. It’s about being educated on the risks, what can you do to get people thinking about those things. It’s education about every aspect of your career.
Also I think that if there is going to be change, young artists are where it will come from. It’s about producing people that are sure of themselves and their right to a healthy mental state, their right to have stability, and to not be struggling daily to eat and pay their rent before they can create. It has to be a collective thing; people approaching the industry and saying, ‘No, this isn’t good enough, we need a change,’ coupled with us engaging with the industry to let them know that this is what we’re teaching the students so they’d better up their game [laughing].
“Being bold in your expression of self-care.”
That’s a good point.
I stole this statement from Francine Gorman, who moderated the last event: being bold in your expression of self-care.
I like that a lot. What’s your number-one piece of self-care advice?
From a personal perspective, my thing is that I write in the morning. It’s taken from The Artist’s Way. My dad, an artist himself, gave it to me when I was young. I’ve never actually finished reading it, but there’s this tactic of free writing three pages in the morning. It’s not for reading again, it’s just a self-expression thing – almost like a bit of meditation at the start of the day. I tend to find that I’m nice to myself in the morning. I think just remembering to be nice to yourself is super important.
Exactly. So what, or who, was the highlight of the series?
I think just seeing it come to fruition. Seeing people’s willingness to engage with it and openness to talk about it was in itself a highlight.
“Being cross-cultural is something to celebrate, but also something to be respectful of and discuss.”
Were there any important takeaways that you’d like to see being given more air time?
The idea of duty of care for the music industry, and establishing that a bit more. And a respect for all creative roles as being valid life choices that should be supported in the same way as, for example, deciding to be a bank teller. It’s something that the industry itself needs to engage with.
When is the next dBs Dialogues and what are we discussing?
We’re kicking off the next series of dBs Dialogues in the new academic year. This time, we’re talking about diversity and culture, which obviously ties into both of the previous topics. At the moment, there are something like 55 different countries represented at the school. So there is immediately a wonderful opportunity to explore and collaborate – it’s magic. But we know that, in reality, sometimes it’s the exact opposite.
There’s also diversity in storytelling: What are the stories being told by the students? How responsible is the school for ensuring there is diversity in those stories and that they are being authentically told? Also, within collaboration and influences from different people and cultures, where is the line between influence and appropriation? I think these things will be really interesting to talk about. Being cross-cultural is something to celebrate, but also something to be respectful of and discuss.
“We’re still continuing the conversation around mental health – it isn’t stopping, we’re going to keep talking about it.”
That’s an interesting point. I think, being in such an international city, the school represents what the wider Berlin is anyway. How are you leveraging the city’s vibrant creative community in other upcoming events?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a crazy melting pot! On the 14th of June, we’re holding another event on mental health, co-hosted with Music Pool Berlin: MPB Community Evening x dBs Music. It will be at the Funkhaus again and we’ve got a really cool line-up of speakers for that. We’re still continuing the conversation around mental health – it isn’t stopping, we’re going to keep talking about it.
We’re also at FEST, a film festival for young filmmakers, in June. I don’t have the date yet, but we are talking about diversity in storytelling with some other educators. We’re taking a whole load of students out there and, in collaboration with the festival itself, hosting a mini Dialogues. We’re going to start this conversation off. Gabrielle Szambelan [Film Degree Programme Lead] is doing some research into the stories that the students have been telling in their work, and doing some analysis and presentation on that.
Amazing, thanks so much for talking to us!