- and how can it connect to Mental Health and Wellbeing?
'Music has been part of human culture for thousands of years, over millennia, music has been used at an individual, group, and societal level for many reasons, from mate selection to social cohesion. The extent of its power has been recognised over the years, to the extent that some politicians and individuals have sought to control or even ban it. The power of music was demonstrated on a daily basis throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, uniting those separated and boosting morale.' - excerpt from The Power of Music summary, Hallam & Himonides.
Young Minds reports that 'one in six children aged 5 to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021', and that '83% of young people with mental health needs agreed that the Coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse'. A 2022 House of Commons Committee report admits that 'this is placing unprecedented pressure on our mental healthcare system. NHS Providers reported to us that even prior to the pandemic "services were at full stretch and access thresholds in many places were too high, creating long waits and contributing to deteriorating mental health"'. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from conversations with nations who took part in the British Council World Voice programme, suggest that the state of children & young people's mental health, coming out of Covid, is in crisis globally.
Against the backdrop of an education sector and its end users struggling to recover from the manifold impacts of Covid, comes the new National Plan for Music Education. That it mentions 'wellbeing' four times and 'mental health' only twice surprised me a little, but then my work with the Sing Up Foundation and the Singing for Health Network is looking specifically at how we can do more to support mental health and wellbeing for CYP through singing, so perhaps I have a biased perspective.
That's not to say that there's no reference to the broader issues of CYP's mental health & wellbeing in the Plan. On p.12, music is cited as important for wellbeing coming out of the pandemic; on p.32 co-curricular provision for children, regardless of their circumstances, could encompass those who might benefit from the mental health & wellbeing aspects of music making; on p.35, music is encouraged as a tool to ease the challenges of transition to secondary; on p.45, music is stated as playing 'a valuable role in young people's education and wellbeing'; and on p.64 youth or community services are observed to 'support broader outcomes (e.g. mental health and wellbeing)', including through music. The case studies attached to the plan refer to this area too, particularly through the work of SupaJam (p.26).
So I'm not criticising the Plan, which addresses a huge range of needs and priorities, nor should music be held up solely as a fixer of societal problems; but I think our current wider educational context and its likely future serve as an important reminder to all of us who work in education and music education that one of the main reasons our children & young people should be making and learning about music is that it's good for us - we do it because it lives within our core as a species and because, on the whole, we enjoy it! And right now, this is one of the most valuable things we can be providing for our children and young people.
I'm preaching to the converted of course - our arguments for the benefits of music for CYP are well rehearsed - but the degree to which these benefits are understood by mental health professionals and organisations is, to use a familiar term, 'patchy', and we've work to do, practice to share and doors to open before we can fully break through the perception that music is little more than a nice-to-have when it comes to mental health & wellbeing.
Globally there is a growing movement around singing for health, bringing together an increasingly large body of research evidence to help us understand better how and why singing seems to have magical healing powers across a range of conditions. One focus of this movement is exploring singing as a medical tool to address specific mental health & wellbeing issues, and this could easily be extended to encompass other forms of music making. We know we can find music which promotes or suppresses certain emotions (e.g. feel-good songs for school assemblies), but can we, for example, collaborate with school pastoral teams and mental health professionals to create music programmes which address more particular, or serious, mental health needs? What does that look like? What resources and skills are needed? How can we make it more widespread and attract further funding?
It's not a wasteland out there: Yorkshire Youth & Music's Music and Mental Health programme works alongside CAMHS and Youth Justice to support young people diagnosed with a mental health disorder; Pie Factory Music on the South Coast works with young people with disabilities and those who face emotional and social difficulties in partnership with a range of local authorities; Scottish Chamber Orchestra's NEW VIBE has partnered with CAMHS and Social Prescribing to create a safe space for young people to 'feel heard, supported, and encouraged to develop musical and socially'; and Artslink West Midlands provides a region wide programme of arts activities for care experienced children & young people in partnership with all 14 Virtual Schools. These are groundbreaking and deeply valuable projects and partnerships, but they are not commonplace nationally, and we can learn much from such existing long-term programmes to help spread this work more widely and develop a symbiosis between music and mental health practice for all our children & young people.
With such pressure on schools and mental health services, there is an opportunity to build on the recommendations of the NPME to provide something which not only supports CYP's mental health and wellbeing but tackles it head-on. How can music and mental health feature in school music development plans, the Music Progression Fund, the Lead School programme, Music Hub centres of excellence and inclusion strategies? This focus could be easily overlooked amongst a range of other priorities, but we should take this moment to consider the role of music, and therefore our own part, in meaningfully addressing one of the great challenges of our time - the wellbeing of our next generation.
Baz Chapman, July 2022