The rhythm of life

CAN music, singing, story-telling and dance help those with mental health problems? Yes they can, according to musician and psychiatric nurse Kevin O’Shanahan.

O’Shanahan, also arts and mental health coordinator for the West Cork Mental Health Services, plans to introduce a range of creative music groups for people in community and hospital settings across the region.

In time, he hopes to further expand this service by introducing painters, dancers, storytellers and other artists who have had experience of working in healthcare settings.

The aim? To allow service-users to experience what he believes to be a range of psychological, emotional, physical and social benefits resulting from creative activity.

O’Shanahan knows music and the benefits that can be gained from playing it and listening to it. Back in the mid-90s he was in a band, the Freudian Slips, which recorded an album and supported the likes of Jools Holland and the Stunning.

But he also points to research to back up his theories — currently studying for a master’s degree on the therapeutic benefits of music, the Limerick man says studies show a range of benefits from the use of music in healthcare settings.

A 2005 HSE and Music Network report found emotional, psychological, cognitive, physical and social benefits to the use of music in health care settings, while research carried out at the University of Canterbury in Britain showed that being part of a choir and actively singing in one on a regular basis lifts the mood and leads to more positive mental health.

Other research carried out in University of Canterbury has found that 15 to 20 minutes drumming per day can have a significantly positive effect on mood.

Music and the arts, believes O’Shanahan, can empower people and divert their focus from being simply a patient.

When he was appointed last November, the 40-year-old’s first step was to introduce a range of creative music groups for people in both community and hospital settings in Skibbereen and Bantry.

Service users now have the opportunity to sing songs and play a wide variety of instruments — from chimes and tin-whistles to drums and the xylophone — in a number of groups which have been established.

An initiative at Perrott House, a mental health facility in Skibbereen, has already attracted an interested following, while similar projects have also begun in the general community in Bantry and Skibbereen. Another music and health programme began in Bantry General Hospital in February.

This is a new development — but one which is badly needed, and which brings the issue of mental health into the community, says Michael Bambrick, director of nursing in the West Cork Mental Health Service, HSE South. “For too long we have been framing mental health around a disease model. For too long our services have been behind walls. What we are now trying to do is re-frame mental health to acknowledge the person within.”

Creativity may help to bring a person to a point where they can see things in a different light and accept that they have a resource within themselves, he says. “There is within each of us a resource which can enable us to help ourselves and one of these resources may be creativity. It will not be the answer, but through creative arts — music, painting, etc — you can help people to reframe themselves.

“In West Cork this Creativity programme is attempting to reframe the uniqueness of each individual within the context of mental health.” is monitoring the progress of his creativity sessions through feedback from staff and participants. The programme is currently a one-year pilot initiative. “We get an idea of how it is working very quickly,” he says, adding that feedback is crucial.

“The nurses will usually come back and tell us about the effect it had on people and how they feel it is working. And we will also know how it is being received by the level of ongoing participation.”

O’Shanahan hopes to expand the programme to other areas of West Cork in the coming years. However, in the meantime, he plans to introduce other art forms such as drama, visual arts and creative writing in collaboration with the Cork Arts and Health Partnership.

“There are currently about 60 people involved in the different music and I expect this figure to grow as the programme develops,” he explains. “I hope to offer the service to groups in Clonakilty and other parts of west Cork such as Dunmanway and Bandon over the next few years.” He also has a separate project underway in conjunction with the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen.

“We have a programme called the Open Door which is a music programme open to the general public and to people who have experienced mental health difficulties. It’s about offering a space for people to come and make music.”

O’Shanahan is working with people of all ages — from those in their 20s to people in their 80s, suffering from a range of conditions from depression to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.

. For information on Open Door, contact the West Cork Arts Centre 028-22090 or email: info@westcorkartscentre.com


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