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Singing side by side for mental health

University of Derby

The benefits of group singing have been widely publicised in the media as well as in academic research papers, which has led to the formation of choirs designed specifically to help improve mental wellbeing. Here, Dr Yoon Irons, Research Fellow at the University of Derby (@DerbyUni), discusses a new MARCH Network funded (@NetworkMARCH) research project called Mental Health Inclusive Choirs, which is exploring singing, group leadership and mental health.

Notes on the benefits of singing

Singing has obvious positive effects on many physical aspects of wellbeing, including improving respiration; breathing slowly and deeply while singing can help to regulate the heart rate, reducing signs of physiological and psychological stress.

Experiments have also shown that singing can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol; encourage the production of endorphins responsible for raising pain thresholds; and increase the bonding hormones, oxytocin and beta-endorphins, which help us to form collaborative social relationships.

Singing in groups can provide emotional release, mood enhancement and social support for all participants, and research has demonstrated particularly strong associations between group singing activities, emotional engagement, increased social bonding, and reduced loneliness for people living with mental health conditions.

Now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the case for further research into how singing can support good mental health is even stronger. Experts predict a ‘tsunami’ of mental health referrals, which will add to the existing backlog of patients on mental health services’ waiting lists for clinical treatment.

In the current climate of uncertainty, it is becoming increasingly important to strengthen community mental health assets which can play a key role in supporting people in improving their mental wellbeing. Sadly, group singing has been restricted due to the obvious need to reduce socially transmitted Covid-19 infections. However, as the world recovers from the pandemic, singing together will once more be a powerful tool for rebuilding interactive communities and enhancing mental wellbeing.

It is time to get vocal about mental health

Singing together, whether in choirs or informal community groups, is a popular activity in many contemporary settings, including groups specifically formed for people living with mental health conditions. The physical, psychological, and social health benefits of group singing have been receiving increasing media attention, and many choirs have been formed with the explicit aim of improving wellbeing.

The leaders of these singing groups are ‘front line workers’ in the community, facilitating enjoyable and uplifting singing experiences in a variety of musical and social contexts. They are constantly multi-tasking, using their skills in musicianship, leadership, and group facilitation, often while also seeking community funding, encouraging inclusive musical participation, and providing rewarding performance opportunities.

When working with people living with mental health conditions, who can present with a range of different concerns and needs in the context of singing activities, group leaders may need additional skills, support, and knowledge to help the singers to fully benefit from their group singing activities. So far, however, few specific resources have been made available to singing leaders who run groups with a particular focus on mental health.

During the Mental Health Inclusive Choirs project, we will explore the diverse needs (in relation to accessing and participating in group singing) of people with personal experience of living with mental health conditions. We will also examine the training and support needs of community group singing leaders who are working (or would like to work) with people living with mental health conditions.

Preaching beyond the choir

The aim of this project is to encourage and empower singing group leaders while promoting the wellbeing benefits of singing together for people living with mental health conditions. We will be consulting leaders of singing groups for people living with mental health conditions, including choir conductors, community choir leaders, and facilitators of informal group singing activities. We will also be speaking to people with personal experience of mental health conditions who participate in organised group singing activities. The input from all the research participants will help us to create a ‘toolkit’ of resources designed to support singing group facilitators who are working in a broad spectrum of mental health contexts.

We will announce details of how to take part on our online survey soon, so if you are interested in finding out more about the project, you can email us, or follow us @SingSideBySide on Twitter and use #SingingForMentalHealth.

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