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The Art of Engagement at a Young Person's Mental Health Unit

I’ve been providing music sessions once a week at Sowenna since September 2021 and one of the consistent challenges has been engaging the young people in an activity. Results have been very positive when engagement has been achieved and the sense of accomplishment is tangible after they’ve taken part in music making. But getting over that initial hurdle and getting them to have a go has proven challenging. There are a number of factors that go into this:

  1. These are truly young people in challenging circumstances. There are a number of conditions that warrant the kind of round the clock care that Sowenna offers including but not limited to depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, self-harm and eating disorders. These are confusing scary conditions that are often caused by neglect or abuse. Living with a mental health condition is difficult at any age but especially difficult when you’re young and are still finding out who you are and where you fit into the world. A patient’s health and wellbeing rightly come first at Sowenna and there is no pressure put on young people to take part in any of the education on offer. Some days they are well enough to attend and engage, others they are not. Some days they are well enough to attend but don’t have the energy to engage. As an artist I know all about the creative process and the kind of mood you need to be in to be creative or express yourself in any way. The first thing you need to be is fit and well - that is something these young people are not.

  2. I’m only in once a week, and if there are Covid lockdowns on the ward (as there have been since September) it may be a few weeks in between sessions. Many of the patients are suffering from low self-esteem and are very shy as a result. They build close relationships with the full-time staff who they see every day and that is something that’s more challenging for me to achieve.

  3. The number of young people in education each week varies. There are new arrivals and patients being discharged on a regular basis and the ones that remain may or may not attend depending on how well they are. Of these only some of them are interested in music and if they are they may not be there for long. Consistent attendance and the momentum that brings to learning an instrument or working on a recording doesn’t apply here. It’s a case of taking the opportunities when they arise, when a young person is well enough and in the right mood.

For all these reasons engaging young people in music making has been challenging at Sowenna. Here are some of the techniques I’ve adopted to ingratiate myself into the setting and to peek the interest of the young people there.

  1. Hanging out in the main education room and playing guitar in the background. This helps the YP’s to get used to me and remind them I’m there while they are involved in other educational activities. There are 2 other staff members that play guitar and they’ll often join in at some point which gets a group vibe going. This has often led to YP’s either singing along or trying out an instrument when they’ve finished a task on a different subject and need a break or a change of scene. The results are always positive even if no one joins in as staff members and YP’s appreciate having a musical backdrop and they get a better idea of what I do.

  2. Warm up games. This is something I learnt through working in theatre where warmups are designed to wake everyone up and get everyone on the same page before a rehearsal or a show. They are good for bringing everyone together and establishing trust and a team ethic. In Sowenna they have proved useful for getting the energy flowing and getting the YP’s moving which they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise do. The warmups I’ve used are rhythm based so they get them thinking in a musical way as well. By leading I’m demonstrating who I am and what I do and because the games are fun, uptake is usually good.

  3. Leaving the studio door open when I’m working on a track. Various people walk past and staff or YP’s may stop and take an interest when I do this. The best result I had on this was a young male patient who was always friendly and forthcoming socially but had never taken up the offer of making some music. He walked past the studio when I was working on a grime backing track for another YP and said - ‘That sounds sick mate!’. I thanked him for the compliment and then walked him through the process I’d been through to make the track, showing him how to create a rhythm part and layer samples to get fresh sound, and how to make wobble baselines often used in the genre.

  4. Playing a riff for a YP to recognise. I’ve only used this technique once, but it worked so well it deserves a mention. In the session before I’d been chatting to a YP who had asked if we could do something by their current favourite artist. I hadn’t heard of the artist at the time, so I went home and googled it and after listening to a few tracks I found one that I really liked it. I transcribed a riff that I particularly liked and arrived the next week all excited to share it with the YP. However, the mood that morning was very sombre. All the YP’s had their hoods up, energy levels were low, and no one was making eye contact or engaging in anything. I realised that bouncing up and asking if they wanted to do some music wouldn’t work and realised, I had to bide my time. Then I decided to get out my guitar and I started playing the new riff. I instantly got a look of recognition from the YP and we both shared a brilliant moment of mutual understanding - like belonging to an exclusive club. I nodded as if to say - ‘yep - cool as right?’ And they responded in a ‘you know it’ kinda way.

In the end all these techniques help but it still comes down mostly to some days being better than others. You can’t force it to happen, but you can lay the foundations of good sessions by being there, getting involved and staying positive.

Jamie Crowe is a long-standing music practitioner with Music for Good and has been working at Sowenna since September 2021. The project is funded by a Youth Music Fund B programme.

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