An alumni-funded choir set up to research the impact of singing on mental health has taken on a life of its own.

A unique musical project has been exploring how singing together improves mental health. And it has proven such a hit that its participants are continuing to rehearse and perform even though the research has been completed.

In the summer of 2016, HarmonyChoir recruited around 50 singers, half of whom have experienced mental health symptoms. During eight rehearsals, singers were asked to rate various aspects of their state of mind, such as their sense of well-being, how much they were enjoying themselves, their “connectedness” and their ability to concentrate. They also completed more in-depth surveys at the beginning and end of the series of rehearsals.

The project culminated in a performance at Edinburgh’s Just Festival at the end of August, and singers also performed a flashmob at the Meadows during the Festival Fringe.

Findings from the research are currently being formalised, but there is clear evidence that the experience was positive for the singers: the choir has fresh performances planned for the autumn and winter, and aims to continue into next year.

The project was one of 30 to receive Innovative Initiative Grants this spring. The grants, of up to £5,000, support student and staff projects that show innovation and creativity in teaching, research or student life. They are funded via alumni donations to the Edinburgh Fund.

 

Footage courtesy of BBC Scotland.

On a happy note

HarmonyChoir builds on existing research that has shown that singing in a choir has a positive effect on participants’ psychological well-being.

The project was led by Liesbeth Tip, a clinical psychologist who is studying for a PhD, who first had the idea for the choir two years ago.

“It has been amazing,” says Ms Tip. “I distinctly remember seeing my first participant, who had never sung in a choir before, had a history of mental health symptoms and seemed really enthusiastic about taking part both for the singing and the aim of reducing stigma. And that enthusiasm happened with all people that signed up.

“It is a great feeling that this project might have made a difference in people’s lives directly as well as for research purposes, finding a new way of improving mental health that has positive side-effects of improving social inclusion and reducing stigma.”

Symptoms plus stigma

The stigma that is often attached to mental health problems is a compounding factor for those experiencing symptoms.

Professor Matthias Schwannauer, Head of Clinical & Health Psychology in the School of Health in Social Science, explains: “One of the key problems associated with mental health is the negative perceptions we all hold about mental health difficulties, both in ourselves and in others, which is very curious, because one in four of us will experience significant mental health problems over the course of a lifetime.

“There are several studies now that highlight that stigma or negative attitudes and their consequences in relation to mental health are more detrimental to the long-term outcome of people suffering mental health difficulties than the symptoms themselves.”

Professor Schwannauer says that social support and integration can help reduce stigmatisation. “This is exactly why projects like this one are so successful, by creating community, creating relationships, creating acceptance and reducing the barriers that often produce stigma and negative attitudes.”

Grant support

The Innovative Initiative Grant (IIG) funded venue hire for rehearsals and performances and other materials and running costs of the project.

“The IIG gives researchers a chance to try something new, to turn their original ideas into reality, to test out those ideas, so it’s fantastic that this opportunity is there,” says Ms Tip. “Hopefully the results will be able to pave the way to solidify this new research route and I will apply for bigger grants related to the topics of music or art, mental health and stigma.”

HarmonyChoir will perform at Explorathon at Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh, on Saturday 1 October, and at a charity concert in support of the Oak Note Theatre at Ghillie Dhu, Edinburgh, on Sunday 2 October. There are also plans to perform in the run-up to Christmas and to be involved in festivals and other events next year.

Innovative Initiative
Grants

Innovation Initiative Grants (IIGs), funded entirely through alumni donations to the Edinburgh Fund, are project grants of up to £5,000 that enable students and staff to test ideas, initiate projects and invest in equipment and facilities.

Around 1,300 students and staff have applied for IIGs since they were launched. The grants are awarded twice a year, in spring and autumn.

IIGs support a wide variety of projects, ranging from sports clubs to academic research.

In addition to HarmonyChoir, the latest round of awards included support for a budding production company, “Top Branch Comedy”; research into the local economic impact of the Rio Olympic Games; and the digitisation of the Student newspaper 1985-1995, and backing for

A full list of the awards granted in spring 2016 is available on the Development & Alumni website.

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