“Ithink there’s something physical about singing in a choir that does you good,” says Kaye Brown*. “For me it’s coming together, and the wellbeing I feel as a result of it. There’s a general improvement in my mental health. I feel better for singing.”
Brown, who is in her 60s and has a history of depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, has been a member of the HarmonyChoir in Edinburgh since it began over a year ago. The choir was originally started by Liesbeth Tip, a clinical psychologist who is doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, as a two-month research project to explore the impact of singing on wellbeing and views of mental health. Due to popular demand, it is still going.
Every Monday evening, the choir meets to practise a repertoire of songs – including I Will Survive – led by musical director Ben Jones. It sang at the Edinburgh festival fringe and is due to perform various concerts over the Christmas period. Among its members are people with and without lived experience of mental health problems, as well as healthcare professionals.
Tip, who has sung in choirs before, says: “When I was a researcher, I worked for clinical trials and went to wards and mental health hospitals to speak with people and find out how they were doing. Over time, I heard positive stories about singing groups. People found them beneficial.”
The possible health and wellbeing benefits of singing weren’t all that interested Tip, however: “There’s stigma around mental health. People [with mental health problems] are still afraid to be judged. People still don’t understand.” she says. “I thought it would be good if people with and without mental health problems got together and talked to each other.”
Brown is no stranger to stigma. “Sometimes you’re not taken seriously because once you’ve got a label, people don’t believe what you’re saying,” she says. “It’s awful not to be believed, it’s very destabilising. I think the worst has been over the last couple of years [because I’ve faced problems at work]. In retrospect, I regret telling work that I have mental health problems.”
Lucy Stirland, 30, who works as a psychiatrist, has also seen stigma towards mental health within the NHS. She says: “Psychiatry isn’t seen as a real specialty among doctors. When I told the people I was working with that I had decided to do psychiatry, I remember a physician telling me it was a waste of a good doctor. That’s stigma against psychiatry, but also it’s demeaning to people who need psychiatric help.”
For the duration of Tip’s research project, choir members were asked a series of questions before and after each weekly rehearsal related to wellbeing and enjoyment, but also views around mental health in general. Tip’s research showed that attitudes of all the singers regarding what people with mental health problems could achieve, as well as thoughts around whether they are to blame for their problems and behaviour or not, improved significantly.
By the end of the two months, choir members with mental health problems were more positive about themselves. When it came to wellbeing, results between people with and without mental health problems improved by the same margin; both groups felt increased levels of wellbeing, enjoyment and connectedness.
Tip may have finished her research project, but her work with the 40 member strong choir continues. She says: “Every time we have a show, we try to get the message in that we all have mental health and that one of the aims of [starting the choir] was to raise awareness of mental ill health stigma. It’s easy to sing somewhere and give that message. What I find great is that we had no idea what it was going to be like and we’re quite good.”
For Brown, meanwhile, the concerts featuring polished performances are merely an extra bonus. The choir has been transformational in more ways than one. It has carried her through a particularly difficult time of her life, she has learned to look at herself in a more positive light and she has made friends.
She says: “I’m always conscious that I’m a bit different, or that people see me as odd. I have to work really hard to seem like I fit in, which I don’t have to do here. I don’t talk about my mental health, but it’s the feeling that you’re in a group of people that are accepting. It’s been a great thing. I’ve made several new friends.”