Music is a better way of dealing with many mental problems than the issuing of pills

When the great choir of the Kop sings hearts get lifted and the team gets supported. Music can inspire (pictures from the Anfield Wrap).

Yesterday I went with Georgina Aasgard to a meeting with Professor Matt Ashton, Liverpool’s director of public health, and Alicia Smith who heads up part of the City Council bring the arts to the community.  

Georgina Aasgard is a professional cellist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Alongside her work at the Phil, Georgina spends considerable time playing her music in a prison or a community centre, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, or a care institution. She is currently working on an extremely exciting initiative looking at ways in which music can be used to help people with mental health and depression.

Georgina is at the centre of a web of fellow musicians who are working together to not only continue with their music within the community, but also to evaluate how successful it is in dealing with mental health issues.

I suspect that instinctively we all think that music can help with people with depression or other mental problems. Depression is something that we all face at times, and it can be compounded by loneliness and anxiety. According to the Mental Health Foundation no less than 1 in 6 of us are facing mental health problems big or small at any one time.

The diversity of music is such that it means different things to different people. Stand on Liverpool’s famous Kop and your heart will soar as the Koppites belt out You’ll Never Walk Alone. Of course, if you are from an opposing team, it might have the reverse effect! Personally, I get inspired more by Jerusalem and the Hallelujah Chorus. I just feel great because of the ‘belting out’ nature of the music and the the mass choir, even if I don’t agree with all the words.

As the age profile of the UK increases, despite a small setback in life expectancy caused by covid, many of us will face – in our family and with ourselves – the conditions that are caused largely by ageing, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Much work has been done looking at music and dementia. This research shows that someone who has dementia can visibly ‘perk up’ when they hear music associated with good times in their past. In fact, they can often remember the words and join in, even if they cannot remember what happened yesterday.

Although this has not been researched fully the anecdotal evidence is that poor mental health issues have massively increased because of Covid. People lost friends and the ability to socialise when they became locked into more solitary existences. Children were unable to build good social relationships for two or more years. More than 200,000 people are now suffering from long-Covid. This has increased their isolation as they lack the energy to work in the way that they did or even to get out and about for social and recreational purposes.

Pressures on so many people are increasing because of the fuel poverty and cost-of-living crisis. So, everyone agrees that ‘something must be done’. What that might be is not always clear when the NHS itself is under huge stress. I do not believe anyway that NHS intervention is the best place to deal with these mental problems until they become acute, when doctors and psychiatrists and nurses, and pills and medicines, must take over.

My solution is the approach being looked at musically by Georgina Aasgard which is looking at social interaction. Increasing people’s interactions with each other can both stop conditions becoming acute and will serve to assist carers who are often forced into health problems themselves.

Music is such an important part of that, but it is not the only way forward and will not work for everyone. That is why I will be asking Liverpool Council and others to look at two more assets that they have with a view to using them better and in the the same way as Georgina proposes.

In clinical terms, our parks and green spaces are a huge asset for physical and mental health. If I go to Calderstones Park, thousands of people use it every day. They are out with their dogs, they are chatting, they are meeting people, they are having a coffee, they are playing bowls, they are absorbing the beauty of the green environment. While they do not necessarily go to the park for health or mental health reasons, their lives are nonetheless enhanced by park use.

If I go to Allerton Library, I see people reading, learning, researching, and talking. Making use of the written word, debates, talks and just nattering to keep themselves doing things and meeting other people. This is another huge asset for our mental health.

Yet even our park and library could do more. There are parts of the day when parts of these and other public facilities are empty and could be used by active participation programmes which will deal with physical and mental health issues.

How would we pay for such enhanced usage? Well, that needs to come from the NHS budget. To put it in context, the entire annual cost of Calderstones Park is about £250,000. That is less than the cost of 250 bed nights in an acute hospital. Parks, libraries, and community centres are already there and need relatively little revenue support to massively increase their use.

I cannot prove that music, parks, and libraries could do far more to prevent acute mental illness at relatively little cost. That is the whole point of Georgina Aasgard’s research. What I can prove is that the problems of mental illness are growing and that the budget of the NHS is relatively declining.

If we can effectively test out the music approach to improving social interaction and reducing mental ill-health by the evaluation programme being tested by Georgina’s approach then we can out in place a push towards other ways of working together to look at the problems of mental ill health with a supportive, cost effective and sustainable approach.

Or as the Bard of Knotty Ash himself might have said, “happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess!”


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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