Singing for mental health and wellbeing: what is it?
Updated: May 15, 2019
At our recent focus group, we explored what is meant by singing for mental health and wellbeing and what makes these singing sessions distinct from others. Join in on the conversation and let us know what you think.
With so many people now recognising the wider benefits of singing on mental health and wellbeing, it's wonderful that we're starting to see more and more singing groups with a focus on improving people's wellbeing. It's also clear that with more emphasis on social prescribing through the NHS, local community connectors and GP surgeries may begin recommending local singing groups to their patients to improve their mental health and wellbeing. In terms of young people, this will also hopefully cascade down through to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) with more children and young people provided with opportunities to join singing groups for their mental health and wellbeing.
It's important to then start thinking about what actually makes these singing groups different? What about them and how the singing leaders lead and organise them provides a rich environment where people can feel an improvement to their mental health and wellbeing? Can we identify some of these characteristics and help to ensure when children, young people and adults attend singing sessions for their mental health and wellbeing, they can take part in a group that has the ability to do that?
In April, we held a focus group with experts working in singing for mental health and wellbeing to begin to explore some of these issues. The group included, Kate Burnett, Lea Cornthwaite, Emily Foulkes, Rebecca Johnson, Rebecca Ledgard, Cindy-Jo Morrison, Chrissy Parsons-West and Jeremy Sleith. It's fair to say, that from the beginning there was ample discussion regarding whether or not there actually was a difference between 'regular’ singing sessions (for lack of a better term) and singing with a view to improving mental health and wellbeing. As all of the singing leaders present had extensive experience running singing for mental health and wellbeing, many of them felt like they considered the effects on the participants' wellbeing as a natural part of their practice in all singing sessions regardless of the context.
Eventually though through the discussions, the group came to agree that there is a difference. 'Regular' singing sessions were described as sessions where the musical goal is most important and where 100% of the development of the group is through music. In singing for mental health and wellbeing, the focus group felt that the leader must cater most to the emotional needs of the participants but that ultimately "music is the agent of change" and that there is less focus on technicalities and the ability of the participants.
Thinking about it further, the focus group did agree on a number of key considerations to differentiate 'regular' singing sessions from singing for mental health and wellbeing. The considerations can roughly be organised into four main areas - group set up and organisation, leadership, support for the singing leader and mental health knowledge.
Group Set Up and Organisation
The focus group agreed that in singing for mental health, group size is critical and depending on the needs of the participants and the context, the leaders must think very carefully about ratios and what type of other support the leader may need in the room (ie pastoral support). It was also noted that structure is important to provide familiarity and comfort for the participants with some time provided in the singing sessions for social time so that participants can connect socially with the rest of the group.
There was also a feeling that singing sessions for mental health and wellbeing must constitute stand-alone, complete, satisfactory sessions. This is because participants might find it difficult to regularly attend a series of sessions for any number of reasons. This also highlights the potential difficulty of making a sustained difference to hard-to-reach groups.
We'd all agree that good quality vocal leadership is critical in all singing sessions but given the context of singing for mental health and wellbeing, the focus group highlighted some specific areas for leaders to bear in mind. Preparation is key and much more thought needs to go into the repertoire and content chosen for the group to sing as it's important to consider potential triggers and sensitivities of the participants. There also was a feeling that leaders need to be much more flexible and much more responsive when leading singing for mental health and wellbeing as there needs to be a plan but the leader needs to read their audience well and be brave enough to abandon the plan if necessary. Given the context, professionalism is, of course, key.
Support for the singing leader
Another area which was highlighted was the increased need for the leader themselves to have external support to mitigate any potential impact on their own mental health and wellbeing. There was a feeling that much greater emotional resilience is needed to deliver singing for mental health and wellbeing. Clearly, self-care is important, but there should be a duty of care from the organisers to ensure the good health and wellbeing of the singing leaders in the same way that employers would approach health and safety standards in the workplace. Depending on the settings and how challenging they may be, the leaders may also benefit from receiving some supervision and support from mental health support workers.
Mental Health Knowledge
Needless to say, there is a need for any one leading and delivering singing for mental health and wellbeing to have a level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of mental health. Depending on the setting, leaders may also be asked to contribute to case notes. As mentioned previously, the leaders need to have a level of awareness to help avoid triggers that may affect participants. This increased awareness should also improve a leader's ability to observe and respond to the group.
We hope some of these ideas have inspired you to think about how you set up your singing groups. Naturally, they will spark many more questions and the discussions we had during our focus group were complex with many more ideas arising that we've still got to unpick and consider. This is very much just the beginning of an exciting journey in developing singing for mental health and wellbeing and ensuring that many more children, young people and adults can experience the life-changing benefits of singing.
We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. What are your views? Have you got experience running singing sessions for mental health and wellbeing? Do you agree with the ideas explored by our focus group? Have you got more to add?
Want to know more about the benefits of singing? Check out our list of relevant research.
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