Joining a choir helps alleviate mental illness by building social connections

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Women singing in a choir by More Good FoundationJoining a choir can improve the quality of life for people suffering from chronic mental illness, according to research published in the July issue of Psychology of Music.

“The choir study showed that people with mental health problems who engaged in a regular meaningful group activity (choir rehearsals), in which they were given a place to sit and a part to sing, found starting conversations and building social connections with other choir members easier,” the lead author of the study, Genevieve A. Dingle of the University of Queensland in Australia, told PsyPost via email.

“Over time, they built confidence and some choir members mentioned making social contacts and meeting up outside of choir rehearsal times. There was evidence of the choir experience becoming a scaffold on which further social connections could be built, such as volunteer work, and social invitations to birthday parties, and other social events.”

Dingle and her colleagues investigated 21 adults who joined a choir for the mentally ill and socially disadvantaged over the course of a year. Nearly 9 out of 10 of these adults experienced chronic mental illness, while 28 percent reported a physical disability and 11 percent reported an intellectual disability. Rehearsals for the choir were held once a week for three and a half hours.

The researchers found that choir rehearsals elicited positive feelings and sense of well-being, as well as reduced stress.

Dingle and her colleagues also found joining a choir had a number of positive social outcomes. Those who participated in the choir reported a sense of acceptance and belonging. One person described the choir as a “wonderful family.” Choir members said they felt more connected with their community and had better social functioning in general.

These social outcomes could be particularly important for those suffering from chronic mental illness. A body of research that has come to be known as social identity theory indicates that belonging to social groups is tightly linked to a person’s self-identity and general well-being.

“In my opinion, we have underestimated the importance of social connectedness in mental health problems,” Dingle said. “Social connections are often difficult to make and to maintain for people who experience chronic mental health problems (such as paranoia, social phobia, depression, or even developmental disorders). Because these individuals typically are not participating in social and occupational roles on a regular basis, they are at risk of becoming very socially isolated.”

“Since the choir study, I have researched this phenomenon further with my social psychology colleagues at the University of Queensland and the University of Exeter,” she continued. “We are applying social identity theory to our studies of various samples including homeless people; and people with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other mental health problems. The results are clear that building or maintaining social connections with groups that we feel a strong sense of identity with, gives us the opportunity to give and receive various types of social support, and is associated with better mental health and well-being.”

Though social connectedness is important, it has some potential downsides. Being socially connected to the wrong individuals, for instance, can be harmful.

“Important caveats to this are that some groups that people identify strongly with and that they receive social support from are not necessarily good for their mental health,” Dingle explained. “An example of this comes from my study of people in residential rehabilitation from drug and alcohol dependence. Those residents who continued to maintain strong ties with their drug using social networks were more at risk of dropping out of treatment and of having poor substance use and well-being outcomes at follow up.”

The study was co-authored by Christopher Brander, Julie Ballantyne, and Felicity A. Baker of the University of Queensland.

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