Joco Opinion

Therese Park — Singers can lean on each other

Updated: 2013-10-20T20:22:02Z

By THERESE PARK

Special to The Star

The Lean on Me Singers is a local choir whose members are linked not only by their love of song, but by mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, chronic depression and bipolar disease.

To join, each member must be receiving treatment as an outpatient at New Frontiers Behavioral Health-Truman Medical Center in Kansas City.

Director Sandy Jackson, a board certified music therapist with master’s degrees in counseling and psychology, said choir members chose their name after they sang Bill Withers’ hit song.

“Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow, b ut if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow. Lean on me when you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on, f or it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on...”

Formed three years ago, the choir has been repeated entertainers at community senior centers, retirement homes and City Union shelters and hospitals.

Anyone can benefit from singing with a group, but for people with mental illnesses, the benefit is tenfold, according to Jackson. Patients who suffer from disorganized or intrusive thoughts experience sensory stimulation while they enjoy singing. For those with symptoms of depression, singing stimulates dopamine and serotonin, the chemical substances in the body that help in emotional balance. And, Jackson said, the members gain confidence about themselves and a sense of belonging from regularly rehearsing and performing together.

“One female member told me that, with her anxiety and depression, she’d have never imagined singing solos in front of an audience,” Jackson said. “Another said she gets positive energy every time she sings. Such feelings of appreciation are common among the group.”

The group is recording its third CD and is preparing for a busy holiday season, including a tour of Kansas City with Christmas music.

Though my knowledge of mental illness is limited, my common sense tells me that most people experience depression, illusionary thoughts, nightmares or anxiety when life treats them unkindly. But with awareness and professional help, patients can live a productive life.

A Korean War veteran I respect has been suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome for more than six decades after 11 months and 29 days of fighting the Communists in an unimaginable condition. Yet today, at age 84, he’s a successful business owner and looks on his past with pride. Howard Hughes, arguably America’s most talented man in the 20th century, also suffered depression and other symptoms of mental illnesses while building his multi-billion dollar fortune as an inventor, aviator, entrepreneur and filmmaker.

Educating the public about the fragility of the mind and helping patients to confront the symptoms of mental illnesses, instead of surrendering, is no small feat. In that sense, the New Frontier Behavioral Health at Truman Medical Center has made a big step in the world of mental health, and the Lean on Me singers are witnesses.

Retired musician Therese Park has written three novels. Her most recent, “The Northern Wind: Forced Journey to North Korea,” is available at Rainy Day Books.

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