You don’t need to be an expert to understand the power of music – be it the way a song can move, uplift or take you back to a specific time, or even just its ability to change your mood. In fact, this is not just a feeling – there is science behind the effect music has on our brains.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, listening to music reduces anxiety, blood pressure and pain, as well as improving sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory. Several organisations here in the North are harnessing this power in a tangible way to effect positive change in people’s lives.
We are shining a light on three of the many brilliant NI charities using sound as the basis for their work. Spanning music therapy for dementia patients, counselling groups for metal fans and hip-hop workshops for disadvantaged youth, music is the common tool in these groups’ arsenal.
Based in Carryduff, Everyday Harmony was founded in 1990 to help those affected by injury, illness or disability through music therapy. Their qualified music therapists use sound to support clients’ emotional, physical, communicative and social needs, working in hospitals, schools, day centres, care homes, prisons and in homes.
As well as providing music therapy services, they also act as an educational and research service on the benefits of this kind of treatment. They work with everyone from those living with psychological trauma, learning disabilities, brain injuries, palliative care needs and beyond.
“When we think about it, we all respond to music and are surrounded by it in our daily living,” a representative from the charity explains. “From birth, through adolescence and adulthood we use music to soothe, stimulate, connect with others and give ‘voice’ to our feelings sometimes without using any words.”
The beauty of music therapy is that anyone can take part and no previous musical knowledge is required. So how does it work?
“In a typical music therapy session, the music therapist and client create music together using voice, a range of accessible percussion instruments and IT equipment. They establish a relationship through which the individual can communicate thoughts and feelings in a way they have perhaps never previously been able to in a safe and supported environment.
Through this they have a new experience of communicating and relating, and as a result may come to regard themselves in a different way. The therapist’s role is to facilitate this expression and communication.” These sessions can be delivered individually or in a group setting and are tailored to each person’s needs. James is one example of someone whose life was transformed by music therapy.
James was referred to Everyday Harmony for music therapy after suffering a brain aneurysm which caused severe loss of speech and weakness in his overall mobility. He struggled to get up each morning and a speech and language therapist hoped that music therapy would develop his overall communication and speech impairment.
The charity representative shares his story: “James became more confident as the work continued, speaking more and playing more energetically. Initially he played with his one stronger hand. However, the music motivated him to push through and play with both hands. He enjoyed rock and roll and played the drums. His personality shone when playing the wind chimes at the end of a song for timely dramatic effect. Ward staff were pleased to see James’ enthusiasm to attend music therapy and [were] encouraged to see him ‘light up’, smiling and actively engaging, compared to other times when he could shut down, not wanting to force communication.”
Metal For Life NI
Communication is the lifeblood of Metal for Life NI, a local mental health charity which works mostly with metal fans.
Founded by Gillian and Ahti Kansanaho after tragically losing their son Dani to suicide, they saw that there were others in the metal community in Northern Ireland who were struggling with their mental health and decided to start Metal for Life as a more accessible service.
At the core of their mission is suicide prevention by addressing the mental health issues that can lead to that outcome, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and stress.
Peer Support Groups are held twice monthly at the Sunflower bar in Belfast and once a month in Ballyclare.
Whilst not being a replacement for formal care, these kinds of therapy sessions with likeminded individuals can be hugely beneficial, especially for those who haven’t had positive experiences with traditional mental health services.
Metal for Life trustee and facilitator Gareth Ruddock explains: “We often feel more comfortable talking to other people who have similar views and interests. Metal music and its fans are often very heavily stigmatised and seen as outcasts from society, so the conversations in these support groups can help people to feel less alone and better understood; a safe place where metal fans can be themselves away from the scrutiny of others and the judgements of wider society.”
In these peer support groups, people can share their experiences and seek advice from others who are further on with their mental health journey, providing inspiration and self-help strategies. The organisation’s social media feeds are also regularly updated with empowering messages, useful infographics and their Facebook group has over a thousand members.
“We also try to encourage coping strategies that are free or that do not cost money to achieve,” Ruddock continues. “Our peer support group sessions are free-of-charge and we try to find methods that are simple, free and easy to practice and to achieve. This means our clients do not feel under pressure to pay for things that can benefit their mental health.”
Local metalheads may recognise Metal for Life from shows run by the Distortion Project who have been supportive in letting the group attend, set up a stall and raise awareness at their events. “The entire metal music community in the country tends to centre around many of these shows, so it means that we are able to reach out to the people that Metal for Life NI was created to help, in a place where they can be themselves,” Ruddock says.
The organisation recently became a registered charity in Northern Ireland, a huge achievement for its volunteers. “What stands out more than anything is that we feel like a part of the metal music community and hopefully, our clients feel like they are part of a family that is there to support them when they need us. We want our clients and the wider metal community to feel that Metal for Life NI is their charity.”
“Striving for better mental health is something presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity and hopefully, with the continued support of the metal music community, we can achieve that together.”
At the other end of the musical spectrum, 5th Element combines the four elements of hip-hop – that’s breakdancing, graffiti, MCing and DJing – to empower young people from a range of backgrounds, improving physical and mental health through their work. The charity runs workshops, discussions and events based around hip-hop and provides upcoming artists and those interested in the culture with recording studio access, equipment, branding guidance and the platform to share and release their work. They also run a radio station called Skank FM which gives many of the organisation’s artists their first airtime. Skank FM co-founder Darryl ‘Daz’ Forsythe is quick to rebuff any sceptics.
“We provide a safe space for expression and we encourage those to talk and socialise within our space to make positive things happen and to help others. We encourage those not to buy into the use of foul language, gang culture or use of drugs or alcohol and also express how these are some of the things that are actually killing our communities,” he explains. “We are a big advocate for promoting mental wellbeing given suicide rates in our own nation are beyond a serious problem. Myself and other members of the charity have suffered from anxiety and depression and we have been through the process of trying to better ourselves and we have also come out the other side. We also all know that creativity and the arts can be used as a therapy to help others.”
The increasingly accessible nature of hip-hop in our modern world and its lack of rules makes it appealing to vulnerable youth seeking a creative outlet. Combined with the meteoric rise of Irish hip-hip over the past few years, 5th Element has never been better placed to make a positive impact in local communities. “[Hip-hop is] now a global brand and the culture is represented in every country in many languages so it’s only right that we have a hip-hop community in Belfast and throughout Ireland. Like all other nations, we use our own accent and slang in our raps and talk about our own social and life situations emphasising our own culture. The graffiti and art also reflects what we see within our own community and this has been going on for centuries within Ireland regarding murals, messages and images created by the people for the people. The stories in Irish hip-hop are more relatable to our surroundings and it’s beginning to capture a wider audience.”
As a culture born from social deprivation in the Bronx in the 1970s, Daz sees parallels between the creativity it can foster in similar areas here. “These events captured local communities and gave them a good time in otherwise poor living conditions and social housing. It’s was a form of release and enjoyment and didn’t require a lot financially to make these good times happen.
This is no different from what we see at present in Belfast, Derry or Dublin for example. Kids growing up in housing estates watching YouTube videos or looking at posts on social media – they are seeing hip-hop videos and events with other likeminded people having a good time through music, art, breaking or DJing and they actively want to get involved.”
As well as cultivating skills that can support them financially, the people the charity supports build self-confidence and intercultural understanding. Daz explains: “This has never been so evident within our own divided society as I watch Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Black and white people collaborate on music, art or dance. They collaborate because they have a common interest and appreciation for each other skills.
Upbringing, religion, sexuality, race or background aren’t really a factor because all are welcome at our building. They never challenge each other about these topics and if anything they tend to ask questions out of interest about other culture or religions so they can understand, as opposed to resentment. There is a sense of achievement when people create a piece of music, art, DJ sets or break at events or cyphers. They accomplish something by being creative that they can feel good about and proud of. If they can do this in our space, they can also apply this within their own life and take positive actions to better their own personal situations.”
Of the many people the organisation has helped, one person’s story is particularly memorable for Daz. The individual grew up in Divis in West Belfast. Having fallen into a trap of crime, addiction and the mental health issues that go with it, he decided to try something different after being in and out of rehab and correctional facilities. He’d always had an interest in rap and 5th Element helped him to make progress with his own projects. These writing sessions then became an album which led to getting booked for events & collaborations.
Eventually landing his own show on Skank FM. “He knew if he was in the studio he was doing something positive and accomplishing goals and this became his new addiction. All the skills he had learnt over a short period of time he began to pass on to others and it was beautiful to watch.”
Daz’s passion for the work 5th Element does is infectious. “I feel so blessed that we managed to create a space with all the elements of hip-hop culture that can help people like this and help them realise their potential. This charity offers opportunity and if people are given a chance and have the correct support, then they can be successful in the arts but more importantly they can thrive in life.”
Find Out More
Everyday Harmony – https://www.everydayharmony.org/
Metal For Life NI – https://www.metalforlifeni.co.uk/
5th Element – https://www.facebook.com/5thelementNI/