Mental health groups harness sounds of everyday life to create evocative anthem

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Silence is a blessing for a stressed parent who has just put their baby to sleep, but for someone suffering from loneliness or pain, it can be an oppressive force.

During the first pandemic lockdown, the sounds of silence were shocking. The truth of that seeming oxymoron lay in the chirping of birds and amplified church bells within a silent and fearful world. Everyday sounds that are lost in familiarity took on a new meaning.

Encouraging people to tune in to this soundtrack of life became a feature last year of Music in Mind, an ongoing collaboration between Mental Health Ireland and the National Concert Hall (NCH). When pandemic restrictions prevented musicians from visiting mental health services, NCH piloted activity packs. These aimed to inspire and support mental health groups across Ireland to embrace music in their everyday lives as a tool for their own well-being.

The show took them on a five-week journey of listening, connecting, touching and reflecting through the music and sounds around them. The package included a gratitude journal, in which participants shared stories of music or sounds that made them feel good, calm or happy. happy.

Community composer and musician Sadhbh O’Sullivan drew on the material to compose a group anthem, Feel Alive, which is being published. released on February 15. It evokes how those who participated were encouraged to look for the little bits of beauty in everyday life.

Sadhbh O'Sullivan.  Photography: Mark Hill

Sadhbh O’Sullivan. Photography: Mark Hill

“The sound of the bathtub running, the housemates’ needles as they knit, and the snoring of their dog,” O’Sullivan offers as examples of what was identified when people listened to music in the mundane.

Music is generally thought of as “very organized sound, but actually disorganized sound can also be quite musical and charming,” he says.

The composition is upbeat, with a focus on positive mental health, but O’Sullivan didn’t want to overlook the difficulties and includes a more thoughtful part in the middle. Although the work has captured a moment in time, “the loneliness will not go away,” he says, and “there will always be those sounds to tune in to, to get you out of yourself.”

I will listen to the sound of the birds. He made you more aware, especially the sound of the bells in the church.

Rita Mangan, who attends the HSE’s Castlerea Training Center in Co Roscommon, says the program gave her a new appreciation for how “quiet is lovely”. Having battled severe anxiety, she lived in an HSE residential community setting for over six years, before moving into a place of her own in 2018. “I had a lot of trauma in my childhood. My older sister died young.”

In later years, their marriage broke down. Now in my 50s, “I’m almost completely recovered,” I’m getting by just fine with only a low dose of medication, a strong religious faith, and was able to quit smoking more than two years ago.

At first, she found the worksheets in the NCH activity pack challenging. “Some of them were quite difficult and I thought, ‘Shall I give it up?’ Since everyone else had someone at home to help them. I have relatives nearby, but they couldn’t get in.

“I live alone but I am happy alone,” she stresses. “I thought I would have to quit. Then one night I came home, there was nothing. I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and concentrated, and I succeeded. From there I was able to do it.”

He has no doubt that it gave him a more positive attitude towards silence. She used to bite the back from time to time, to go to the dumpster, but now she routinely walks out the back door in the morning, “and I hear the sound of birds. She made you more aware, especially the sound of the bells in the church”.

Although he would have listened to them for the past three years living there, he had never really stopped to listen. “He was more aware of all these different things, where he wasn’t before this assignment.” She has found them useful since “if you are depressed”; even subtle sounds, like the click of the refrigerator.

“People say, ‘Do you want to stop,'” but he admits they’re too engrossed in their phones or TV to notice.

I also do upholstery in a workshop but for me music is a form of escapism. You’re pretty good right now.

John Dempsey (53) has also found that tuning in to sounds around you, such as birdsong, is “very beneficial,” especially during walks. Of the various activities available at the Castlerea center, music is his favorite. “It takes your mind off the confusion and anxiety and all those kinds of emotions that you might be carrying around.

“Almost 30 years ago I was in the US Army and when I left it, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and also paranoid schizophrenia. My parents passed away suddenly and life was too difficult.”

He remains on daily medication and attends the center three days a week. “I also do upholstery in a workshop, but for me music is a form of escapism. You’re pretty good right now. Whereas some of the time I’m kind of stuck in the past and things are spinning around in my head.” Try to stay in the “here and now”.

“As they say, ‘past regrets or future fears rob you of the present.'” He too hopes to join a gym in Ballaghaderreen soon because music and exercise work best for him. “I like upholstery but, at the same time, your mind is not always on that particular job.”

He considers himself to be a fairly average singer and enjoys the choir at the center. “There would be quite a lot of music in me, although I never learned to play the guitar or anything like that.”

Before the pandemic I used to go to the Kimovee Cois Tine Heritage Center in Co Mayo, “just like the old days, the labyrinthine days. I really enjoyed it, I used to contribute and collaborate.” He looked forward to the resumption of those sessions.

O’Sullivan hopes Feel Alive will get local radio airtime in the communities of mental health service centers that have tested the activity pack. It would also be wonderful, she adds, if some of the groups could learn to sing it together, “in a way that means something to the people who own it.”

To people like Rita Mangan, who burst into tears hearing it play for the first time after her interview for this piece. Transported to a moment in time.


Music therapist Helen Arthur: “I listened to what he had to say in music, compared it and validated it”

Music is a resource that we can all use to be well or overcome trauma, says music therapist Helen Arthur.

For her, personally, the former has applied throughout her life, while professionally she helps others to do the latter. She currently works with children and families at LauraLynn Hospice in Dublin, she previously worked with adolescents at Blue Box Creative Arts Therapy Center in Limerick.

Consider the statement typically offered by therapists in sessions, “I hear what you’re saying.” She does that musically.

One particular 16-year-old boy who attends individual sessions in Limerick sticks in his memory. “He went crazy for leather on a drum kit. I had an electric guitar and joined him. I remember the first time I turned up the volume to match his volume, going fast when he would go fast, he stopped for a second, just looking at me because he expected me to tell him to stop.

“But I listened to what he had to say in music and compared it and validated it.” Later, such expression of emotions can be explored with words or not.

Working in disadvantaged areas, such as Moyross, she was struck by the amount of loss that the adolescents who lived there had in their lives, “through relationships that were broken, people that died.” They had also had so many professionals come and go throughout her life, she was aware that “I had to earn my place.” Putting up with the “public humiliation” was worth it, he laughs.

Once trust was established, the teens “made great use of those therapy sessions. It was very moving to see those sensitivities of those young girls and boys and to get to know them expressing themselves and showing their vulnerabilities.”

The hospice environment is very different, but the essence of the work is the same, using music “to address needs as they arise.” Usually there is active music, but sometimes children or families choose a song for her to play.

The week we spoke, she and a young Disney fan had shared You’ve Got a Friend in Me, then started jamming together.

“He started singing about things that were going on in his life. She had dolls and things died, things were lost, when she started inventing her version. Then she brought it back to ‘you’ve got a friend in me,’” Arthur sings in explanation of the phone call.

As the sister of a little girl with a life-limiting condition, “I think she just said ‘sometimes it’s hard, someone could die,’ and that was all contained in the song.”

The only training in Ireland for music therapists is a two-year postgraduate course at the University of Limerick. People usually come in from music or health care, says Arthur, who has an arts degree specializing in art and music history.

“I’m a competent musician, but I feel like I understand the emotional language that it is.” When you play music as a therapist, you’re not thinking about acting. “I’m thinking about what I should do right now to respond to what’s going on in the room.”

When dealing with children with serious developmental problems, you might be looking at how to stimulate a child to, for example, move their right hand.

“For children with complex needs, cognitive impairment and little movement, we could be working in the sensory world” to stimulate or negatively regulate. “The body could soften and they would have less pain.

“I have had to learn to listen very carefully, with my eyes and ears. I keep offering until I find something that I feel is an answer and then I’ll explore it some more.”

She remembers playing a soft drum with a boy that week and there was no response. But when she pulled out a cocktail shaker, her eyes strayed to the sound. And taking it to the side of her head caused movement there as well. It was clearly something she attracted.

“Your body tone can change. It’s like, ‘I could get your attention, now we’re in this together.'”

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