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Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Music & Mental Health with Rashida Black ’97

December 17, 2021

Rashida Black

This month, we caught up with Rashida Black, a graduate of our Music Department, who filled us in on her journey from studying Harp Performance at Walnut Hill and New England Conservatory to her current career as a licensed, multicultural clinician focused on supporting her patients’ wellness goals. For more information about Rashida, and the incredible work she does in the world of mental health, visit her website: rashidablack.com. 

1. What brought you to Walnut Hill originally, and what was your experience like as a music student here? Do you have a favorite memory from those years?

I came to Walnut Hill as a sophomore with visions of being an orchestral harpist. I never imagined performing in a youth symphony overseas or eating enough warm chocolate chip cookies, gooey mozzarella sticks, or cinnamon sugar-dusted toast to last a lifetime. My favorite memories include hearing the progress of my friends in their practice rooms or on campus as their notes and voices caught the wind outside. I also loved supporting my friends’ performances. I remember going several times to theater productions, laughing and crying in the audience, and being awed by so much unbound talent.

2. Catch us up on the years since you graduated—what did you do after Walnut Hill, and how did that lead you to the career you have now in the world of social work and therapy?

Great question. You can read my bio at rashidablack.com for details about performing, recording, and teaching after graduating, but here’s the tea: after Walnut Hill, the things I did that led to my current career were heartbreaking, empowered, transformative, and lifesaving; I worked to understand the mental health challenges experienced by so many young artists and I became the person I needed.

My first master’s degree—in ethnomusicology—allowed me to connect with a global community of people of color in classical music. I needed to acknowledge and celebrate people who looked like me in places where I was usually the only one. Creating support quieted feelings of loneliness and isolation. My second master’s degree—in clinical social work—allowed me to understand the impact that environmental and genetic conditions have on mental health in various settings, including arts schools. I examined mental health in the arts through the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. I also specialized in human and child development, substance use, and trauma. Each step brought me closer to my current work. I still have more to do to ensure that young artists receive mental health care that supports their ability to thrive. That’s my mission!

While I was at Walnut Hill, mental health symptoms were normalized in the arts and in society.  In fact, mental illness was either stigmatized or romanticized, especially among teens. My friends and I idolized Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and the 27 Club for their reflections of our pain and creative expressions. We glamorized the detrimental conditions of our idols as part of the artistic process instead of recognizing them as mental illnesses. Mental illness and the arts were considered synonymous, or worse, madness was assumed to increase the likelihood of success. Words like self-care, mindfulness, and trauma-informed were not trending. Generalized problem-solving to address mental health symptoms provided a salve, not solutions to treat underlying causes. For example, I was told that I simply needed more practice to calm my nerves when experiencing anxiety. I was guided toward beta-blockers and other substances to refocus my attention on strengthening my identity as a performer. I was encouraged to improve my performance skills when experiencing depression from rejection or failure. I was told that physical pain from overexertion was a technical issue instead of the result of harmful perfectionism. I remember attending a master class on performance anxiety as a student at NEC and recoiling when it was facilitated by a sports psychologist. If the arts community knew then what we know now, amirite? Still, I applied the prescribed self-remedies and when they proved ineffective, I blamed myself for my perceived weaknesses, which exacerbated my declining mental health. It took years to realize that my experiences were part of a larger issue. Survival helped me to examine myself, my experiences, and the experiences of my peers to find answers to our collective condition because non nobis solum, Walnuts.

3. Do you find that your arts education influences the way in which you approach your work in your current field? If so, in what ways? Or, alternatively—how else does art figure into your life?

Most people think that therapists listen to people’s problems, but I prefer to think that I interact with people’s solutions. Some solutions work well in context, while other solutions need revision or adaptation. I focus on strengths and solutions whether I am treating individuals, couples, or families. Enter creativity. Creativity helps me to remain hopeful when confronted with challenges, due to my belief in limitless possibilities. Like a theme with variations, my background in the arts helps to shift my outlook, explore nontraditional approaches, and use expressive therapies that are becoming more acceptable as research proves their effectiveness. I work with movement and music in my psychotherapy and hypnotherapy practice to access emotion and improve connections that result in positive changes. My purpose is to find healthy ways to manage and reduce stressors, address traumas that affect creative blocks, and achieve overall wellness.

4. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for our recently graduated Walnuts, or for our Class of 2022, who are preparing to enter the world?

Being an artist does not mean starving, brooding, or suffering from mental health issues. Unacknowledged or untreated mental health challenges shorten or drastically alter creative expression and success. Since success is an ongoing process, not a final reward, prioritize your mental and emotional health to help your career flourish. Advocate for counselors and clinicians who have experience with the arts or knowledge of artists as a special population; these providers will help to educate your parents, peers, and communities about unrealistic expectations, antiquated standards, and traditional pathways that intensify mental health issues. Seek support from Backline, MusiCares, and other arts-specific resources.