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Changing lives through singing

Freedom of Mind Choir perform at Strathcarron Hospice in June.

FDAMH is an independent mental health charity serving Falkirk and District whose mission is to promote mental wellbeing by providing a range of services.

In March 2017 FDAMH received National Lottery funding through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund towards its Freedom of Mind Choir which offers regular, professionally led singing opportunities for adults from Falkirk and the surrounding areas who are recovering from or living with mental ill-health.

We spoke to Emily Stewart, Arts Coordinator for FDAMH, about how the Freedom of Mind Choir got started and the impact it has had on FDAMH service users.

Freedom of Mind Choir perform at Strathcarron Hospice

How did the Freedom of Mind Choir get started?

I was recruited to my post as Arts Coordinator for FDAMH in August 2015, and one of the first things I was keen to establish was a choir. I’ve been in choirs all my life, and I’ve found them to be great places to meet new people, do something a bit different and to build your self-esteem. At the heart of it that’s what my job is all about, providing activities and projects that give people a boost, so they feel more confident to go out and do more things by themselves and regain a sense of independence. Singing in a choir is great for that, although performing can be daunting it’s such a major lift to be applauded and praised by an audience.

We started out in December 2015 and it was immediately more popular than we anticipated, which was fantastic. Leading our choir was the brilliant Kim Edgar, and we started out with some Christmas songs, some world songs, a real mix. The initial feedback we got was extremely positive, so I proposed to my manager that we carry it on for a year-long pilot. She agreed to give us a small pot of funding which meant that we could continue with Kim and really grow the choir in that time. We even did a mass performance in October 2016 for World Mental Health day when we invited other singers from the community to join us for a performance at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital and we ended up with around 100 singers taking part.

At the end of the pilot we did another feedback form, and some of the comments were just outstanding. People said everything from that they don’t know what they’d do without the choir, that it was what they looked forward to every week, that it was their light. It was so touching to hear everyone sounding so positive about what we’d created. That was the point we started looking into Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund and we were delighted to be successful. 

Acceptance, a smile when you arrive until the end of the day, mutual conversation and agreeing, I feel encouraged and inspired.- Freedom of Mind Choir participant

What will the funding allow you to do?

It has allowed us to keep working with Kim for our choir sessions which is so important. It’ll also allow us to buy a proper stage piano, which will be the choir’s legacy and something that will allow it to go on and on. It’ll also allow us travel expenses which means we’ll be able to reach different audiences within the Forth Valley. This outreach is a really vital part of what the choir is all about. Our community performances are about breaking down stigma and discrimination and spreading the word about what mental health actually is. Everyone has mental health, it’s about whether or not we take care of it. Sometimes people can run around leading very busy lives without sparing much thought for their own mental health, so we definitely want to promote the importance of self-care.

Freedom of Mind Choir perform at The Tryst Festival

What impact have you seen the choir have on individuals?

Just such a massive impact, it really is quite incredible. I would say the biggest thing is confidence. I’ve seen people come in from the very beginning a couple of years ago starting off singing in a whisper and not really looking at anyone, to now where they are doing solos! It’s a huge improvement from people who wouldn’t even make eye contact, to now laughing and smiling and going out with others and just sharing this experiencing and really living their life. They’re not just surviving they’re thriving, it’s the biggest gift we can give to our clients.

Some comments we’ve had back from the choir include:

  • “I feel this class has uplifted me as I’m meeting other people, I feel it’s really helped me recover from depression”
  • “Go in with a heavy heart, go out with light heart. A life saver to me not sung in a lot of years. Thank you.”  
  • “Joining the choir has made me feel happy and alive it’s the only happiness I feel usually during the week because of my mental health but coming here meeting new people and meeting friends is all I look forward to now.”
  • “The choir has been a great activity as far as I’m concerned. It’s given me a positive activity to focus on and helped me to meet new friends. The fact that we have also worked with other choirs across the Falkirk area means that we are helping to promote a positive image of mental health to a wide demographic across the community. We are all improving and I think that the choir is a good tool for FDAMH to promote its positive message in relation to mental health”  
  • “Acceptance, a smile when you arrive until the end of the day, mutual conversation and agreeing, I feel encouraged and inspired”  
  • “The course has given me confidence, I am less anxious, made loads of friends and learnt so much about singing from Kim. I always look forward to Wednesdays and the choir has given me so much”  
  • “Freedom of mind choir which helps you inspire, to reach higher and higher, in this wonderful freedom of mind choir. They're like family and friends they see you through good and bad right to the end though it’s never the end as we’re all family and friends.” 

Freedom of Mind Choir at Tryst Festival

The choir is just part of your job, you organise and promote a whole range of activities. What role does creativity play in promoting good mental health?

It’s so significant. I’ve seen so much of a difference in clients throughout almost every single activity we’ve done.

The thing about mental health is that it can go up and down, it can be unpredictable and you never know what’s around the corner and sometimes the unexpected can make people very unwell. But having a creative output can be so empowering, knowing you have certain tools you can apply to bring the stress or the anxiety down a bit. For instance, there was a woman who was using one of our other support services, a drop-in, who was really struggling with her mental health. I encouraged her to join our felting group, and she wasn’t sure but towards the end of it she was actually extremely talented and even had her work displayed. The boost it gave her was phenomenal. I remember one of the comments she wrote was that she felt like a ghost in her own life but now she felt she had somewhere to go, where she could do something that made her feel good, produce something she felt proud of and just have a sense of ownership. And the support within the group itself was so important.

Another example was a young girl of 18 with schizophrenia who joined our drama group. She was incredibly anxious and came in so nervous hardly saying a word, but she was very talented at art so she did the props. As she took ownership for this she started to grow in confidence, she didn’t feel judged or as if people might be afraid of her and she felt able to talk openly about her illness. Now she comes in, she laughs and smiles, and her contribution is so important to the group. Seeing her transformation has just been astounding.  

The arts are so important in so many ways, especially for mental health but they are important for everyone’s mental health.

This article was published on 15 Jun 2017