Home Music therapy Mental health groups are harnessing the sounds of everyday life to create an evocative anthem

Mental health groups are harnessing the sounds of everyday life to create an evocative anthem


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

During the first pandemic lockdown, the sounds of silence were striking. The truth of this seeming oxymoron lies in the amplified birdsong and church bells in a hushed, creepy world. Everyday sounds that get lost in familiarity have taken on new meaning.

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

The program took them on a five-week journey to listen, connect, play and reflect through the music and sounds around them. The pack included a gratitude journal, in which participants shared stories of music or sounds that made them feel good, calm or content.

Songwriter and community musician Sadhbh O’Sullivan drew inspiration from the material to compose a band anthem, Feel Alive, which is being released publicly released on February 15. He talks about how those who participated were encouraged to seek out the little bits of beauty in everyday life.

Sadhbh O'Sullivan.  Photography: Mark Hill

Sadhbh O’Sullivan. Photography: Mark Hill

“The sound of the bath running, the needles of the roommates while they knit, and their dog snores,” O’Sullivan offers as examples of what was identified when people were listening to music in the mundane.

Music is generally considered to be a “very organized sound but, in fact, unorganized sound can also be very musical and enjoyable,” she says.

The composition is upbeat, with a focus on positive mental health, but O’Sullivan didn’t want to gloss over the difficulties and includes a more thoughtful part in the middle. While the work captured at some point, “the loneliness isn’t going away,” she stresses, and “there will always be those sounds to listen to, to take you out of yourself.”

I will listen to the birdsong. It made you more aware – especially the sound of the bells ringing in the church

Rita Mangan, who attends HSE’s Castlerea Training Center in Co Roscommon, says the program has given her a new appreciation for how ‘quiet is nice’. Having struggled with severe anxiety, she lived in an HSE residential community for over six years, before moving to a place of her own in 2018. “I had a lot of trauma growing up. My older sister died young.

Years later, her marriage broke up. Now in my 50s, “I’m almost completely cured”, I tolerate low-dose medication well, strong religious faith, and was able to quit smoking more than two years ago.

At first, she found the NCH Activity Folder worksheets difficult. “Some parts were quite difficult and I thought ‘am I going to give up?’ because everyone else had someone at home to help them. I have family nearby, but they couldn’t enter.

“I live alone but I’m happy alone,” she says. “I thought maybe I should leave him. Then one evening I came home, there was nothing. I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and concentrated, and understood. From then on, I was able to do it.

She has no doubt that it gave her a more positive attitude towards silence. She used to just pinch her back once in a while, to get in the trash, but now she regularly goes out the back door in the morning, “and I’ll listen to the birds chirping.” It made you more aware – especially the sound of the bells ringing in the church.

Although she had heard them during her last three years of living there, she had never really stopped to listen to them. “I was more aware of all these different things, where I wasn’t before this homework.” She has found them useful since “if you are depressed”; even subtle sounds, like the clicking of the refrigerator.

“People say, ‘are you going to stop’,” but she feels they are too engrossed in their phones or the television to notice.

I also do upholstering in a workshop, but for me music is a form of escape. you’re fine right now

John Dempsey (53) has also found listening to the sounds around him, such as birdsong, “very beneficial”, especially on walks. Among the various activities offered at the Castlerea centre, music is his favourite. “It takes your mind away from confusion and anxiety and all those emotions that you might have with you.

“Nearly 30 years ago I was in the US military and when I left I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and also paranoid schizophrenia. My parents both died very suddenly and life was just too hard.

He continues to take medication daily and visits the center three days a week. “I also do tapestry in a workshop, but for me music is a form of escape. You’re doing pretty well right now. Whereas sometimes I get a bit caught up in the past and things are ruminating in my head. He tries to stay in the “here and now”.

“As they say, ‘regrets for the past or fears for the future rob you of the present’.” He also hopes to join a gym in Ballaghaderreen soon, as music and exercise are what suits him best. “I like upholstery but, at the same time, your mind isn’t always on that particular job.”

He thinks he’s a pretty average singer and likes the center choir. “There would be a lot of music in me, even though I never learned to play the guitar or anything like that.”

Before the pandemic, he used to go to the Kimovee Cois Tine Heritage Center in County Mayo, “just like the good old days, the days of rambling houses. I really enjoyed that – I used to contribute and collaborate. He looks forward to the resumption of these sessions.

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

To people like Rita Mangan, who broke down in tears hearing her perform for the first time after her interview for this play. Transported to a moment in time.


Music therapist Helen Arthur: ‘I heard what he had to say in the music and matched it and validated it’

Music is a resource we can all use to stay healthy or overcome trauma, says music therapist Helen Arthur.

For her, personally, the first has applied throughout her life, while professionally, she helps others to do the second. Currently working with children and families at LauraLynn Hospice in Dublin, she previously engaged with adolescents at the Blue Box Creative Arts Therapy Center in Limerick.

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

One 16-year-old boy in particular who attends individual sessions in Limerick remains etched in his memory. “He went to hell for leather on a drum kit. I had an electric guitar and I 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 was expecting me tell him to stop.

“But I heard what he had to say in the music and I matched it and validated it.” Subsequently, such an expression of emotions can be explored with words or not.

Working in deprived neighborhoods, such as Moyross, she was struck by the extent of the loss that the teenagers who lived there had in their lives, “through relationships breaking up, people dying”. They’d also had so many professionals coming and going throughout their lives, she was conscious “I had to earn my place.” Hanging on through the “public humiliation” was worth it, she laughs.

Once trust was established, the teens “used those therapy sessions very well. It was very moving to see these sensitivities of these young girls and boys and to meet them expressing themselves and showing their vulnerabilities.

The setting of the hospice is very different but the essence of the work is the same, using music “to meet current needs”. Usually there is active music, but sometimes children or families choose a song to play.

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

“She started singing about things that were happening in her life. She had dolls and things died, things got lost, when she started making up her version. Then I brought it back to ‘you got a friend in me,’” Arthur sings in explanation during the phone call.

As the brother of a little girl with a life-limiting illness, “I think she just said ‘it’s hard sometimes, someone might 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 from music or health, says Arthur, who has a degree in arts and specializes in the history of art and music.

“I’m a competent musician but I feel like I get the emotional language that he is.” When she plays music as a therapist, she doesn’t think about playing. “I’m thinking about what I need to do right now to react to what’s going on in the room.”

When caring for children with severe developmental problems, she may seek to stimulate a child to, for example, move his right hand.

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

“I had to learn to listen very intensely, with my eyes and with my ears. I keep offering until I come across something that feels like an answer, then I’ll explore that some more.

She remembers playing the soft drum with a little boy that week and there was no response. But when she pulled out a shaker, her eyes moved to the sound. And bringing it to one side of his head caused movement there too. Obviously, it was something that appealed.

“The tone of their body can change. It’s like, ‘I could have your attention – we’re in this together now’.