Maureen and Iain O’Kelly are on a mission to cut suicides rates and boost global mental health by harnessing the power of music.
The couple, both 49 and from Glasgow, are raising money to launch a free music service called ‘Music On Prescription’ which will provide people with mental health problems access to over 35 million songs. The idea is that users will create their own personal playlists to boost mood and mental wellbeing.
The service was inspired by two very emotional and traumatic family events.
Iain’s sister, an NHS psychiatrist, took her own life, leaving the family devastated. Two years later, things took a turn for the worse when the couple’s eldest daughter Stephanie began to self-harm. This was the beginning of a downwards spiral which later led to numerous suicide attempts.
Maureen told The Huffington Post UK: “We realised something was wrong with Stephanie when she was 11. I was saying goodnight and noticed she was trembling.
“She said she needed to show me something and I said, ‘it’s okay’, and hugged her to reassure her. Then she lifted up her pyjama trouser and I saw that she had cut the word ‘help’ on her leg.
“I sat there and held her and told her that we would get through this. That was the beginning.”
Suicide and self-harm had been fairly alien concepts to the O’Kelly family up until that point and they felt desperately out of their depth.
Maureen began researching mental health and the more she read, the more she felt compelled to help others.
It wasn’t long before she had begun training as a mental health counsellor. She also began to write and perform her own music with the message of “hope”.
“Music is so much more than just entertainment,” she said. “It has the power to be therapeutic and improve wellbeing.”
It’s well known that music has beneficial effects on mental health, in fact a 2011 study by McGill University in Montreal found that music releases the feel-good chemical called dopamine into the brain.
With mental health referral times averaging 16-18 weeks, ‘Music On Prescription’ aims to act as a form of at-home therapy, “bridging the critical time gap between people needing and receiving professional help”.
But sadly it doesn’t come cheap and the O’Kelly family now needs to raise a staggering £300,000 to transform their dream into a reality.
After the family’s shocking self-harm discovery, Maureen and Iain’s daughter Stephanie was diagnosed with depression and then clinical depression. She later survived attempts to take her own life.
“It affected my whole world,” said Maureen.
Over the years, as Stephanie’s needs became greater, there were large periods of time where she was unable to access help. The idea for ‘Music On Prescription’ stemmed from this problem.
“While a patient is having to wait for an appointment with a specialist, they can listen to this music to help them through,” explained Maureen.
On World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September) the O’Kellys are launching a fundraiser to try and bring ‘Music On Prescription’ to life.
NHS 24 Breathing Space and Spotify are on board with the idea – now they just need the £300,000 required to build it.
The service would be made up of songs which have been specially created with mental health in mind. Users can then select which ones they like and produce tailor-made playlists.
“Evidence shows that music has to be self-selected,” Maureen explained. “You can’t tell a person to listen to a certain piece of music because it will make them feel better. It doesn’t work like that.”
The service asks users a series of very specific questions when they first sign up, which helps to find them music they’ll like.
Every week, users will receive animated messages and videos around a particular issue – whether it’s self-harm, depression or suicide.
Alexandra Sheach, 42, who has attempted suicide and experienced suicidal thoughts, said the service sounds like a “lovely idea”.
“Music is good because it doesn’t require actually reaching out or talking to anyone,” said Sheach, who has borderline personality disorder and admittedly struggles to reach out to professionals when she’s hit crisis point.
“I could see myself using this, especially with these modern, giant headphones that completely cover your ears. There’s some psychological element in that too, I think. Being ‘covered up’ helps bring you peace.”
To donate money to the service, visit www.musiconprescription.com.