A bitter sweet symphony. Why Mental Health matters to the Liverpool Phil

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With a global reputation for musical excellence spanning more than a century, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the city’s most celebrated cultural institutions.

But away from sell-out concerts and award-winning arrangements, the Liverpool Phil is building a reputation for harnessing the power of music for an altogether different purpose.

Supported by an annual grant from Liverpool City Council of just over £1.1 million the orchestra’s community work has blossomed in the decade since the city was European Capital of Culture.

And in particular, its mental health programme is now becoming a national benchmark.

Photo credit: Mark McNulty

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust have been working in partnership since 2008, delivering programmes in Mersey Care in-patient settings and the local community, targeted at service users, their families, carers and Trust staff.

The programme, which the orchestra has become fiercely proud of, supports people in Liverpool and the wider city region living with a range of mental health needs and over the 11 years, 10,000 service users and their families and carers have participated.

The programme creates pathways and progression routes including independent visits to Liverpool Philharmonic and sign-posting to other activities. We deliver a range of activities within Community settings, including Mersey Care’s expanding Life Rooms facilities.

Photo credit: Mark McNulty

One manager at Merseycare commented: “There are methods other than medication, to help people living with mental health problems. We know the music programme is working, the service users tell us it’s working and it’s making a difference. People with poor mental health lose their social networks and through creative projects we can help them recreate these and build new ones as part of their recovery. Being socially active and culturally engaged creates new lease of life.” Service users agree: “During the long process of recovery, the music sessions have helped me as some kind of anchor I can hold on to.”

Photo credit: Mark McNulty

Sessions and activities include music making, informal adult learning opportunities, composition and song writing, improvisation, participant-led group performances, visiting musician performances, Recovery College courses including singing and music appreciation, and employability opportunities and skills development. The programme also includes supported concert and rehearsal visits to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

A team of Liverpool Philharmonic lead musicians deliver the sessions and a further fifty Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Musicians have been involved with the programme.

At the heart of every session is a person-centred approach to recovery, using music as a mechanism of change through self-expression and ownership.

The feedback from the musicians themselves is moving. “One of the most memorable sessions I have had, was with someone who had been in and out of services for 40 years. I had gone to the session with another member of the orchestra and we ended-up playing a Beatles song. This gentleman decided to join in and sing with us. He began to cry and get quite emotional, it turns out the song had been played at his mother’s funeral but his emotions had never come out. He had been planning to leave the centre that day, but after that he stayed on. He said that it had helped overcome the tension inside him. He has now been ‘clean’ for three years and credits it to what happened that day.”

In 2017 we launched a five year vision to roll out our programmes across Liverpool City region, also expanding our programme at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. This includes our popular dementia-friendly concerts in Music Room and relaxed concerts in the Hall.

Photo credit: Mark McNulty

Over the next five years, we will also develop plans to deliver our ground breaking work in new settings and environments including hospital trusts and community services, young people’s services and additional secure services delivery such as prisons.

Our aim is the programme will develop confidence, skills and hope for the future, reducing isolation and exclusion of often highly marginalised individuals at very challenging times in their lives.