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My view on how music can support young people with mental health conditions and how it can aid their recovery by Megan Burke (Youth Music Leader on Quench Arts’ Plugin project)

Through discovering music in my teenage years, I have realised over time that the art is often times about the people as much as it is about the creation. Although I spent a lot of time playing music alone and shaping my identity around the bands that I liked and the instrument I played, ultimately I was more excited to share it with others, whether than be on stage, in a rehearsal, or even just talking about it with my friends. In fact, discovering music led me to an entirely new friend group, helped me find my best friend, and has shaped my future - all because one day I decided to pick up the guitar that I’d hidden down the bottom of my bed, learn a few songs using the internet, and tag along to an after school club (which ended up being Sound It Out). 


My experience seemed entirely different as I first stepped into Woodbourne Priory - a beautiful building in Birmingham where young people can recover from mental health conditions, receive treatment whilst still continuing their schooling. The young people in this environment are often only here for 6-8 weeks, although sometimes they can be there for longer depending on the situation. If I’m completely honest, I began to have doubts - can music, in such a short period of time, create a lasting impact and promote the recovery of these young people? 


Our sessions consisted of myself, Paul, some iPads, a guitar, and sometimes a keyboard and an eggshaker. Throughout this project, we put the focus on accessibility, ease and building self esteem. The focus point for us was to encourage a sense of creative safety, a place to explore where there were no right or wrong answers. We ease into the creative process by introducing the young person Garageband, a relatively easy-to-use piece of iPad software. Sometimes the young person had used this before, sometimes they were complete strangers to this kind of music-making - either way, this gave us an idea of where to start. By introducing the young person to smart drums, loops, autoplay guitar, piano chords or voice recording, it allowed the young person to reach forward, press the iPad, and create music. 


Within mental health recovery, decision making can be very difficult. Often, even just reaching forward to press a button can feel too overwhelming of a decision to make, let alone looking into songwriting or singing, but when they did reach forward to press the button, suddenly pressing another one didn’t seem so difficult. With our young people, the first press of the button marked the start of an incredible journey. One button became two, which became a drum beat, and with another button it was recorded, and “Hey, look! You recorded your first track!”. This one drum track would then lead to a guitar track, or maybe some keyboard played on the iPad, and then maybe into mixing, adding reverb, compression, echo, the list is endless for these young people! Before we all knew it, there it was - a full track, full of little decisions and milestones, coming together to create a real piece of music. What started as “I don’t know if I’m doing this right” became “I don’t like this, I want to change it”, or “I want to show my Doctor and my friend my new song!”. 


One particular young person that stands out to me is someone I’ll call Molly. Molly took some convincing to try out our music sessions, and when she did come, she was adamant she wasn’t ever going to sing. EVER. We introduced her to Garageband and she made some fantastic music, and then we discovered what music she liked. When she gave us a song she loved at the minute, we decided to remake it using Garageband - guitars, bass, drums, keyboard, effects. When it came to the vocal, Molly was still adamant she wasn’t going to sing. When myself and Paul started to sing the song instead, Molly slowly started to build her confidence and join in. We recorded our three-piece vocal and added it in. One day, Molly told us she and another young person on the ward had written a song together - Molly had wrote the lyrics, and the other young person had arranged it into a song format. Every week, Molly wanted to sing her song. Then she wanted to sing it to the ward staff and her friends. Eventually she started writing more lyrics and poetry,, this time by herself, tackling some topics of upset in her life, in order to write another original piece of music.


The growth in confidence and self-esteem in this young person, who started out as someone who didn’t really know what they wanted to do, now to someone who actively wants to continue writing their own music and sharing it with others, astounds me. Someone who started out quite reserved now engages in conversation with us every week, making us laugh and making decisions about how the session goes. Funnily enough, everytime we ask “What was your favourite part of today?”, the answer is always “Singing.”


For young people with mental health conditions, and in regards to their recovery, music making offers something incredible - a space to make active decisions and to be rewarded by the outcome. The reward, in itself, is the creation and the sharing, and the pride in having made said decision. It changes the feeling of “I feel like I can’t do anything right” to “I’ll try it anyway, and if I don’t like it, I can make changes”. The little voice in all of us that says “Don’t try that, you’ll be terrible at it” becomes “I want to see what I can create”. Music making gives us room to express our innermost thoughts and feelings, no matter how painful or raw, and create something beautiful from them - for a lot of artists, it almost gives the feelings a home. By starting small and encouraging this freedom of expression, the single push of a button can open up doors to new friendships, facing our fears and our feelings, stepping out of our comfort zone and having something physical to show for it, combating young people’s feelings of isolation, worthlessness and anxiety. 


When we first worked with the young people, we would do a wellbeing survey to see how they marked themselves in regards to their self worth, self esteem and self confidence. At the end of our time working together, we would take the survey again. All young people showed massive improvements in how they rated themselves. Every young person went up, no matter how short the time frame. Their view of themselves had begun to change, and they now had a new hobby to share with their friends on the ward, their staff, and us. What started as a question of “Can we improve young people’s self esteem using music in 6-8 weeks?” was answered by the young people themselves. 


Originally, I thought that my experiences as a teenager were completely different, but I know now that they’re not. When we discover music, when we push that button, we learn more about ourselves than we ever would have realised and we discover all the wonderful things we are capable of. I believe that creating art and seeing that we can put something positive and beautiful into the world does wonders for our mental health, self esteem and our relationships with others, and I am convinced of the benefits of music-making for young people with mental health conditions. With enough love and support, someone who is determined to never sing aloud may even start to appreciate the sound of their voice, and in recovery that can make the world of difference.