Euan McColm: Don’t let song remain the same on mental health

Scott Hutchison playing Princes Street Gardens with Frightened Rabbit on Hogmanay 2016. Picture: 'Ian Georgeson
Scott Hutchison playing Princes Street Gardens with Frightened Rabbit on Hogmanay 2016. Picture: 'Ian Georgeson
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Don’t forget the songs that made you smile,” sings Morrissey, “And the songs that made you cry. When you lay in awe on the bedroom floor…”

If another piece of art more perfectly captures the intense relationship between teenage fan and pop music than Rubber Ring by The Smiths, I’m not sure what it is. Anyone who, in adolescence, sought refuge in the worlds created by musical heroes will recognise themselves in Morrissey’s words; his warning not to forget the songs that saved your life will make perfect sense.

To those for whom the years have encouraged a cynical view of the world, the idea of a pop record saving a life might seem a little melodramatic. It isn’t.

For a 13-year-old, say, living in a conflict-damaged household while struggling to find some kind of identity, music can open a door to an imaginary world where everything makes sense and where one is accepted, even celebrated, for all one’s flaws.

I was one of those kids and, although I’m hurtling towards 50 at a terrifying speed, I still am.

If I pluck out at random one of the thousands of records that line the back wall of our front room, I can tell you where and when I bought it, what the weather was like that day, and – if it was acquired between 1982 and 1988 – which girl I was daydreaming about. Take the copy of This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren, which I’m looking at now: Got it on a wet Monday in HMV on Union Street in Glasgow in January 1984 and I was hopelessly in love with Susan from double French at the time (I also bought White Lines by Grandmaster and Melle Mel on the same shopping trip, which took place when I was supposed to be in an English class eight train stops away).

Repeated exposure to these records, and countless more, has resulted in the songs becoming part of me. I can recreate them from memory in my head, and when I do, the feelings I experienced when I first heard them come whooshing back, occasionally knocking me off balance.

It’s not all nostalgia. For some of us, the thrill of hearing something new with which you immediately connect remains potent long after the days of lying alone in the dark on the bedroom floor. Most recently, it’s been Wanting What I Can’t Have, a new single by Carla J Easton which, after repeated listens, retains its power to fill me with euphoria.

What would life be without the entirely safe drug of great music?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance of pop music – or other lesser art forms – in our lives these past few days, ever since Scott Hutchison, the lead singer of the band Frightened Rabbit went missing after leaving his hotel in South Queensferry on Tuesday.

Hutchison had spoken and sung 
about his mental health problems since his band came to prominence more than a decade ago and the outpouring from fans to whom his songs had made a palpable difference – often by reassuring the listener that, no, she wasn’t the only one to feel this way – was striking.

Anyone who has read even a fraction of the tributes that followed the devastating discovery of the singer’s body on Thursday evening will never again dare to dismiss pop music as a frivolity.

The irony of Hutchison being able through his talent to offer comfort to so many while failing to find it himself is especially bleak. As is so often the case with artists, the engine which drove his creativity was fuelled by some dark and difficult thoughts. It was the honesty with which he processed intense feelings that made his songs connect. Yet the feelings which made his music stand out are the same feelings that, in the end, he could no longer deal with. What a damnable thing it is.

Among the musical community – in Scotland and far beyond – Hutchison’s death has had a profound effect. Many, understandably, have urged anyone else who might be feeling the sort of despair that consumed him to reach out to someone, to seek a helping hand.

Few would disagree that this is sound advice, but if we are to use this tragedy as the starting point of a new discussion on mental health problems – and I think we should – then we need more.

Politicians from across the spectrum reacted with sorrow to the news of Hutchison’s passing and I do not doubt the sincerity of their words. But all of them – regardless of party – should back up their words with actions.

The Scottish Association for Mental Health, SAMH, last year warned that, despite a promise by the Scottish Government that mental health expenditure in the NHS will rise above £1 billion for the first time in 2017-18, the amount spent had fallen as a proportion of the overall budget.

There were, said the organisation, areas of mental health that urgently required additional funding. In particular, the organisation called for more money to help children and young people.

A commitment by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay to make more money available for mental health services in the current financial year was certainly a positive step. But still the situation for some young Scots remains intolerable.

Reports of children, teenagers and young adults being judged not unwell enough to receive support are all too common, while a recent study led by academics at Glasgow University concluded that more than one in 10 young Scots report having attempted suicide, while 16.2 per cent said they had self-harmed. Yet one in five of the young people referred to Scotland’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service are rejected.

Some cross-party unity on the need for investment now – and perhaps the boldness to consider using tax powers to make a significant difference to NHS budgets – would be very welcome, indeed.

Songs alone can only save so many lives.