Rocker’s Mission: Helping The Mentally Ill Find Their Song

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Dozens of Connecticut’s most at-risk mental health patients have added a new tool to their treatment plans – songwriting – thanks to an unusual partnership between a New York-based singer and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Over the past two years, singer-songwriter Mary McBride and her bandmates have worked with 36 young adults who receive DMHAS services, according to DMHAS Communications Director Mary Kate Mason.

McBride hosts songwriting workshops with participants in DMHAS’ Young Adult Services. The songwriting process gives participants a creative outlet and a chance to be heard, she said.

“It allows them to do what they do really well,” she said. “Beyond most kids in their age group, they’re really good at telling their stories,” since they often are asked to do so in clinical settings, she said.

“They’ve been so creative. Music has been amazing for them,” McBride said. “It allows them to tell their story and also allows them to tell their story with a focus, which is coming up with a song.”

During the two-day workshops, participants share their stories with a group of their peers, and group members offer feedback on what resonates with them and may make for good songs. Participants derive a title and choose the musical genre in which they want their song to be. Then McBride, her band members and other musicians help participants write lyrics and arrange the songs.

“They’re given the opportunity to create something that is lasting,” McBride said, and patients’ songs typically are deeply personal.

In one workshop, McBride recalls, a young woman who had gone blind penned a song called “The Things I Remember,” about what she recalled seeing before she was blind. Another recent participant wrote a song about her experience transitioning genders.

“(Participants) are all incredibly focused kids when it comes to what’s going on in their lives emotionally,” McBride said. Songwriting, she added, “allows them to have a sense of completion.”

Mary McBride and her band perform outside the Conn. Mental Health Center, New Haven.

Cara Rosner Photo

Mary McBride and her band perform outside the Conn. Mental Health Center, New Haven.

In addition to the workshops, McBride and her band have brought their “Home Tour” to sites throughout Connecticut and beyond since 2010. The tour visits mental health facilities, supportive housing communities and other places where residents typically don’t have access to live music. Many DMHAS patients and clients have attended Home Tour concerts, Mason said.

McBride, who is based in Brooklyn, and her band travel the world with the Home Tour. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of State, the band has six international tours booked this year and recently returned from a week in Haiti. On each tour stop, the band brings music to people where they live, eliminating the barrier of having to travel to hear live performances.

Sometimes, the Home Tour and McBride’s songwriting workshops intersect, as patients often are asked to perform onstage during concerts when feasible. During a recent concert at the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, for instance, a teenage patient performed a song he had written in one of McBride’s workshops.

The workshop and concert experiences benefit DHMAS patients by supplementing treatment they are receiving, Mason said.

The Young Adult Services division, with which McBride works, serves people ages 18 to 25 with a history of major mental health problems. Individuals in the program are transitioning from the youth mental health system to the adult system, and are working on achieving the necessary skills for successful adulthood, she said.

“Mary McBride’s contribution through music workshops and concerts aligns perfectly with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ belief in complementary and alternative strategies that benefit recovery-oriented practice,” Mason said. “DMHAS’ partnership with the Home Tour has been a three year-long opportunity to help educate, inspire and build healthy communities.”

In Connecticut, McBride said she is grateful for the support of DMHAS, the governor’s office and mental health providers who have helped make her efforts a success.

“Connecticut is our best model in terms of work with all the different agencies,” she said, adding she hopes to replicate the success elsewhere.

While it is not necessarily what McBride and her band originally intended to do when they began touring back in 2002, she said working with mental health patients has been rewarding and has renewed their creative energy.

“It feels very meaningful to us,” she said. “These tours have really allowed us to have a second chapter in what we want our music to mean. The opportunity to write with young people in Connecticut has been this incredible experience.”

McBride will be featured on a panel, “Rock ‘n Roll That Heals,” Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., at the Yale Art Gallery, part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven. DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon and author Rick Moody will also be on the panel.  Lynne DeLucia, C-HIT’s editor, is the moderator.

McBride and her band also will perform a free concert on the New Haven Green Wednesday at 7 p.m.





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