Choir gives mental health patients sense of pride and community
By Neale McDevitt
In just a few minutes the choir members will take their place in front of the audience and begin their four-song set. Some look a little nervous, holding their songbook to their chest and silently staring straight ahead. Others seem entirely at ease, chatting happily with friends and family. It is the beginning of the holiday season and in coming weeks this little scene, no doubt, will be reenacted in auditoriums and church basements around the city. Another night, another choir.
A creative outlet
But this is not a church basement; it is a gallery of Les Impatients, a centre of artistic exploration open to people suffering from mental health problems. And the singers are all outpatients at the Wellington Centre, a Douglas Mental Health University Institute affiliate helping people with psychosocial issues integrate into the community.
The choir was formed in January 2009 with the hope that it would offer patients a creative outlet while combating stigmatization. “You often hear people with mental health issues say things like ‘I can’t work,’ ‘I’m not strong enough’ or ‘People won’t accept me,’ said Barry Crago, clinical administrative chief of the Douglas Institute’s psychosocial rehabilitation services, and a Masters graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Music. “The choir is one of the activities we offer that gives people a sense of joy and accomplishment and helps them identify a part of themselves that fills them with pride.”
The choir rehearses once a week in a Verdun church, away from the Wellington Centre, and is run by Aya Aikawa, a choirmaster who has no training in musical therapy or mental health management. “The whole idea is to get people to look beyond those issues,” Crago said.
For her part, Aikawa views members of the Wellington Centre choir in the same way she does other singers she works with. “Music is the main focus with me,” she said, “so the biggest challenge I have is that the singers have absolutely no musical background.
“Do they have bad days where they have trouble concentrating? Sure, but I see the exact same thing with the church choir I direct,” she said.
Josée Robillard has been with the choir since its inception, lauding it because “it pushes me to learn and gives me a goal.”
Mostly, however, the choir has given Robillard the gift of music in her daily life. “I like to sing when I’m alone,” she said. “I never did that before.”
And while the choir only boasts a membership of some 10 singers at a given moment, Crago doesn’t measure the choir’s success with numbers. “A lot of these people thought they could never take part in life and now here’s a big chunk of passionate life for them to participate in. The look on their faces, and on the faces of their family members, after a concert, tells me all I need to know,” Crago said.
Hit their stride
The six Wellington Centre singers get a smile from Aikawa and they walk to the front of the room. People shout words of encouragement from the audience, many of them members of two other choirs made up primarily of people suffering from mental health problems who will perform later that night.
The choir forms a semi-circle around its choirmaster and everyone opens their songbooks. Someone clears a throat. Aikawa raises her hand and pauses. With one flick of her wrist, she signals the start of Scarborough Fair. Not everyone begins on cue, with a few voices lagging behind. Nerves, perhaps. But the singers correct themselves individually and by mid-song, they are hitting their stride as a unit. They sound good, just like any well-rehearsed choir you’d hear this time of year. Beautiful.