Why music is just the Tonic for tackling the stigma around mental health

From left:  Martin-John McDonnell,  Sarah Bennett, Rob Coache, Michelle Sammars and Syd Bennett.
From left: Martin-John McDonnell, Sarah Bennett, Rob Coache, Michelle Sammars and Syd Bennett.
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David Bowie’s Starman or The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby?

It’s a tough choice, but after they’ve had a few gleefully ramshackle runs through both, the participants in Tonic’s music group plump for the moptops’ classic.

They intend to get a cover version ready to perform it at the mental health charity’s Christmas Party on Thursday, December 17 at Southsea’s Wedgewood Rooms.

Musician Rob Coaché, the frontman of High Wire Act, leads the group, which has a relaxed, informal atmosphere to it.

The group began in September, taking place every other Thursday morning at The Edge of the Wedge in Albert Road. As with everything the charity does, it aims to promote wider understanding of the issues around mental health while also giving people a creative outlet in a friendly environment.

And importantly, they are not exclusive – the workshops are open for anyone who wants to come along and express themselves.

Steph Langan, Tonic’s co-founder, says: ‘People who experience mental illness often feel isolated, lonely and not a part of their local community.

‘It can be difficult to meet friends and take part in activities and attend gigs.

‘Tonic enables people who feel incredibly isolated to meet people in a safe space and so many friendships have been formed through our groups.

‘People who are a part of Tonic often refer to it as The Tonic Family – they feel they belong to something and feel supported by its members.

‘I have seen so many people grow in confidence over the past three years who have gone on to find paid work, facilitate our groups and help at events, form bands and feel a sense of belonging and hope.’

Sarah Bennett, 41, from Sarisbury Green, was at the group with her 12-year-old son Syd, who has recently started playing guitar.

She has been a friend of Steph’s since their schooldays and now volunteers with the group. She says: ‘Steph’s utter passion for it is completely infectious and you want to be part of it.

‘It doesn’t matter if you create something or not, or if you just want to come along and chat.

‘They’re accessible and relaxing – it’s not something poncey, it’s pretty laid back and that breaks down stigmas and barriers.

‘There’s another lad who comes along with ADHD, and my lad has never been around someone like that before, and he had him in stitches.

‘Syd has suffered from anxiety, and I’ve felt so much more equipped as a parent because of things like this.

‘I wasn’t like: “Oh my God, you need a psychiatrist”, I was able to deal with it.

‘I think everyone should come to something like this.’

At the workshop we drop in on, Martin-John McDonnell, 22, is a first-time attendee. Having only recently moved to Portsmouth from Lincoln, the keen guitarist was looking for groups to jam with when he came across Tonic.

‘As someone who is quite a big music fan, but has suffered from anxiety attacks and panic attacks, it sounded interesting.

I thought I would come along and see what it’s about. They’re all really enthusiastic fans first and foremost.

‘When I’ve spoken to other charities, they put the mental health side right at the front, but Tonic is good at using music as an opening to the conversation.

‘I have been to counselling and they will say ‘‘sit down and tell me what’s going on’’. But here it’s more conversational, and it feels like it’s easier for people to open up more.’

That laid-back, open atmosphere is key to what the charity aims to achieve.

‘That’s a really important point – what we are trying to move away from is having groups for people with mental health problems,’ says Steph.

‘We all have mental health and I think the way of combatting the stigma is by people getting to know each other. It’s about acceptance and understanding.

‘We do get people from all walks of life and some charities can only be for people under mental health care, but this is about anybody.

‘In the summer holidays we have loads of kids come along, and it’s nice to have those different ages there.’

The charity’s stall has become well-known at events such as Victorious and various markets.

‘We’re quite fiercely independent and quite proud of that,’ says Steph. ‘We don’t get any grants or have money from anybody else.

‘It’s all money we raise ourselves from putting on gigs or through selling things at street markets and festivals and things like that.’

They’ve also got the backing of many in the local music community, particularly Beats and Swing and the Hipshaker DJs.

But they are looking for their own permanent space to operate from.

‘We do need a place where we can leave things and expand on what we do.

‘We are planning at some point on having a pop-up shop somewhere in Portsmouth.

‘But we do need a base – we want to offer more groups.’

The music group next meets on November 29 at 10am.

The art group next meets on Thursday from midday.

nSearch for Tonic Music for Mental Health on Facebook.

n The Tonic Christmas Party takes place at The Wedgewood Roooms on December 17, featuring Vinny Peculiar, The Rising, The High Wire Act and many more.

Doors open 7pm. Entry is free.