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Tackling sensitive topics for lyric writing with young mental health service users by Meldra Guza (Wavelength Music Leader)

The same topic can cause positive or negative emotions depending on personal circumstances and therefore sensitivity to a specific topic can vary.


The same topic can cause positive or negative emotions depending on personal circumstances and therefore sensitivity to a specific topic can vary.

The main thing to do when tackling sensitive subjects with young people is to stay mindful that what might seem totally ordinary for one person might be of a very sensitive nature for others.  All of us have different life stories and consequently different topics that we would find sensitive. Whilst some people can freely talk about their fun childhood, for others it might be a cause for distress; whilst some have possibly enjoyed going to school, for others it will be a reminder of bullies; whilst some would find their career goals achieved, others might find it heart-breaking to talk about their dreams that didn’t come to fruition.

As a music leader, I believe it is an absolute must to ensure that the environment in which the young person is working is comfortable and safe. There is the actual fact of physically being in the room and feeling safe, and also there is the need for the young person to feel comfortable in the company of the music leader. This trust can often be achieved almost instantly, however there might be times when it takes several sessions for the young person to get used to the environment and people that he/she is working with.

Here are few examples of universal themes for songwriting that can potentially cause a variety of reactions. A one word theme can often be used to prompt writing however it is good to be mindful of particular circumstances of the person that the music leader is working with. For example, some people might feel that there is no “hope” and therefore they might not want to write about it, or they would find it upsetting to think about it, whilst others might feel that 'hope” is a positive and cheerful subject. Similarly with all other given examples below (and there are plenty more):

  • Hope
  • Family
  • Future
  • Happiness


Songwriting as a tool for a release of emotions. Tacking sensitive subjects must remain the choice of the young person.

Songwriting is a very useful tool to summarise one's emotions and move on from a particular situation in one's life. In many cases, young people will write about something that has been upsetting and then feel stronger as a result of it. This can be explained as, in many ways, writing about things that might be on their mind deals with some part of the problem and allows them to leave some of the emotions behind. Usually, within the structure of the song, the young people also find a solution for their problem/emotional distress and, as a result, it often provides them with a feeling of empowerment. Writing about sensitive subjects should always remain the choice of the young person. There might be times when in one session they feel very empowered to talk about various issues and the following session they might want to just do an instrumental without lyrics. That is understandable and should be treated with no pressure of continuing on the particular song.


Times when it is important to steer the young person away from a particular subject.

There are times when it is best to try and steer the young person away from a particular subject, for example, running away (if they permanently reside in a mental health hospital), suicide, the meaning of life (if they have been known to have suicidal thoughts) and so on. When working with young mental service users, it is advisable to encourage positive train of thoughts instead of leading to negative thoughts. There is a great balance to be achieved between allowing to express emotions and writing lyrics that result in destructive songs. This is particularly important in a group setting as, when it comes to young mental health service users, there might be few stronger personalities that may overpower the ones that are more insecure. It is good to set a positive model and keep the music as a tool to build the confidence and try and see the positive instead of negative. It is also critical to report back to the responsible personnel any information that the young person might have shared that concerns the young person’s safety.


There is no wrong or right!

When tackling sensitive subjects, the music leader's main role is to listen, praise and subtly encourage the young person. In the capacity of professional songwriting, there are many methods of finding a starting point of a new song, so I believe it also can to be transferred to writing with young people. 

In a group setting it is important to demonstrate with examples that a song can be written in many different ways so that the young people feel encouraged and safe to express their thoughts by singing, suggesting lyrics or starting with some accompaniment ideas. Every young person is an individual, some might find it easier to start with melody or beat, some might want to write a lot of lyrics that can be edited later on etc. It is of a high importance to allow the young person talk, write, sing or rap (depending upon what they choose).

Whatever method is natural for the young person, it is good to follow. It is critical to understand that it is all about the young person's journey and exploration of emotions so the less music leader gets involved in the end result, the better.


Fictional writing to overcome the difficulty to express emotions and avoid fear of being judged when tackling sensitive subjects.

If the young person finds it difficult to express emotions, it is a great idea to suggest fictional writing. This approach makes the young people feel at ease and they then feel that whatever they say will not be judged. Chances are that some ideas will be based on their life experiences and that they will still include autobiographical details in their storyboarding but they will feel more comfortable about sharing it in this way. 



To sum up, it is important to allow the young people to express their ideas and emotions but, depending on particular circumstances, to remain mindful of the subject matter and its direction. It is also important to praise the young people on their ideas and offer subtle developments in a form of prompting instead of giving a ready-made solutions. It is good to empower the young people with the idea that there is no right or wrong approach to writing a song and that they can follow their imagination to come up with various scenarios in their creative work.