Making room for everyone in the audience

Come enjoy ‘Stigma-Free at Boston Symphony Hall’

A MUTUAL COLLEAGUE of ours recently recounted for us a personal story of how a situation she would have normally loved – a classical music concert with some of her favorite pieces of music – turned into a nightmare of anxiety.

Carol was out for an evening of fun and culture. Dinner with friends was enjoyable, as was the walk to the performing arts center where the local symphony was to perform.  As she settled into her seat, Carol felt her heart begin to race. As she noted the physical symptoms, her mind began to race. Why am I sitting in the middle of this row so close to the stage? What happens if I have to get up or move around?’ Why are all these people sitting so still and looking so formidable? Why am I even here?’

As the conductor entered the hall to applause, Carol felt like she might explode. There was no way to stay in her seat and no way to leave without disrupting a dozen or more people on either side of her. She felt trapped, unhappy, restless. What should have been a happy moment became, in an instant, a nightmare scenario.

Carol’s experience is familiar to many who live with mental health issues. And many there are: more than 20 percent of US adults experienced some form of mental illness in 2020. If that same percentage of the population were diagnosed with a physical ailment, a terminal disease, say, it would ring alarm bells everywhere.

Awareness and discussion of mental health issues of all kinds became paramount during the COVID crisis. Ironically, the same pandemic circumstances that caused many of us to feel isolated, depressed, anxious, even paranoid, also reduced access to care for those same symptoms.  Social upheaval, political strife, fear, and isolation from family and friends exacerbated the flaws in understanding the need for comprehensive mental-health care, a near-crisis situation even in non-pandemic times.

For me, Ronald, my mental illness is part of my life, every day, front and center.  I’ve chosen to be public with my diagnosis with bipolar disorder and my condition is well-controlled.  But that was not always the case.  I was on a path to be a professional  conductor, enjoying significant acclaim, and racking up international bookings before  having that trajectory interrupted after my diagnosis.  Not because my condition wasn’t under control; a terrific team of doctors helped me manage the ups and downs that accompany bipolar disorder. Instead, it was the stigma surrounding the diagnosis that caused me to lose professional jobs. I went from in-demand to outsider almost overnight.

After the professional fallout from my diagnosis, I pledged to fight the stigma associated with mental illness, on-stage and behind the scenes. That pledge gave me the power to establish the Me2/Music organization 10 years ago, which provides a place for musicians with mental illness and their allies to come together, play beautiful music, and be accepted for who they are.

It’s also the driving force behind “Stigma-Free at Boston Symphony Hall,” the live concert performance at Boston’s iconic music venue by the Me2/Orchestra on January 23 that will welcome audience members with mental illness of any type, and any music lover who wants to hear the orchestra play beautiful music.

In my work at McLean Hospital, I (Blaise) experience the pervasiveness and impact of mental illness, and the social stigma it engenders. Mental illness affects people of all kinds – all races, all ages, all socioeconomic levels. Openness about mental health by high-profile celebrities and sports stars like Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, and Aly Raisman helps people understand that mental health issues can affect anyone.

Me2’s “Stigma-Free at Boston Symphony Hall” performance is the next step in acceptance and accommodation. Setting expectations for audience experiences can bring more enjoyment, but it also explicitly tells those with mental health needs that “you are welcome here.”

Meet the Author

Ronald Braunstein

Musical director and conductor, Me2/Music
Meet the Author

Blaise Aguirre

Medical director of 3East Continuum, McLean Hospital
The next time someone near you in a theater seems to need a little support to address what’s happening to them, rather than judging them, recognize that they are not choosing to suffer, and ask yourself the following: “What happened to that person, that they are struggling?” and then, “If I were struggling, how would I want my fellow concertgoers to see me and help me?”

Ronald Braunstein is music director and conductor of Me2/Music organization. Dr. Blaise Aguirre is the medical director of the 3East Continuum program at McLean Hospital.