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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Members Interview: Professor Harry Kennedy

Professor Harry KennedyProfessor Harry Kennedy is consultant forensic psychiatrist and executive clinical director at the National Forensic Mental Health Service, Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, Ireland. He is also Clinical Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. He studied medicine at University College Dublin before training in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry in the UK at Hammersmith Hospital and Maudsley /Institute of Psychiatry, London. He established early prison in-reach services in Pentonville, Holloway, Cloverhill and Mountjoy prisons. His research includes work on the epidemiology of suicide, homicide and violence; prison psychiatric morbidity; international human rights law and mental disabilities. He provides expert evidence in human rights cases including Whitemoor escapers (special secure units), Napier (slopping out), Z & G v Revenue (same sex marriage).

Professor Kennedy is also a musician. Some years back, I was somewhat startled to read in an interview with him in a medical news journal that in another life he would have liked to have been a full-time musician “in a very loud band”. In this lifetime, he has been content to play (loud) music on the side, and he speaks enthusiastically about the beneficial effects of listening to and of playing music, particularly in collaboration with others. For the blog, he spoke to me about these issues and other matters relating to music and mental health.

Who is your favourite musical artist or group and why?

I am listening to a lot of Snarky Puppy lately. I haven’t seen them live but they are great on YouTube. I like their ability to improvise around well rehearsed and scored music, and the way they bring in guests and young musicians. I always enjoy listening to Emma Kirby, Iarla O'Lionaird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Trevor Pinnock, Peter McCarthy. And The Doors, The Gloaming, Massive Attack...

What was your greatest musical experience?

Hearing Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble playing in St Alban’s Cathedral – they walked around the aisles and nave ‘playing’ the building itself. Hearing Brian Wilson live in The Point came close. 

You play the bass guitar. What made you choose this? How did you learn?

A guitar teacher suggested it. Possibly because of the way I was trying to play, possibly because there are only four strings. My great good luck was to find friends who also wanted to play – a drummer, a guitarist, a keyboard player. Ensemble playing is a pleasure in itself. 

How do you make time to play music alongside your work as a psychiatrist? What benefits and challenges does this pose?

At home I am teased about my evening work pattern – ten minutes work, fifteen minutes on the bass, ten minutes work...

Does music have a role in mental health treatment? If so, are there any particular challenges in forensic settings?

WHO definitions of health can seem a bit perfectionist until you think about how much hospitalised patients enjoy any opportunity to be creative. If painting is self-actualisation, then playing music with other people is self-transcendence. The bands in Dundrum at the moment have a life of their own and are hugely popular, along with gardening, bee keeping and other activities that require group creativity.

What do you think is the mechanism by which listening to or playing music can help with mental health issues? We would be particularly interested with regard to your expertise on violence and aggression.

Music can as easily stir up violent feelings as friendly or calm feelings. Think about Wagner in Apocalypse Now, or the bronze age wind instruments used by armies going into battle. That’s the use of music for Dutch courage before acts of instrumental violence. The film Apocalypse Now also uses Hendrix and the Doors for expressive violence and self-harm respectively. Then there is the deliberate misuse of Beethoven in Clockwork Orange. These are examples of the use of music either to communicate something (the martial use for instance) or as an individual cue or prompt, a sort of aid to intoxication – think of the first scene in Apocalypse Now.

But music also works as a way into positive frames of mind – the countless examples are too obvious to be cited. Music is an emotive force but how it is used, personally or collectively, positively or negatively is a matter of choice.

Some of the interviews I have conducted here have raised the issue of the differences between performance, composition and improvisation. I know this is something that interests you also. Can you outline your views on this?

This is where the use of music in hospitals might be located. Performing is anxiety provoking. Overcoming that can generalise in all sorts of ways. Performing something written down is always an act of interpretation and even thinking about that is the beginnings of learning to think about thinking. This is something that often occupies the early phases of hospital treatment for people who are not psychologically minded to start with. Improvisation then becomes a real pleasure, a form of mastery over the fear of performance. But improvisation has the added element that it is generally done in a band setting with other musicians, exchanging ideas, taking turns, supporting the structure. That has benefits of its own.

You have also spoken about lecturing as performance and entertainment. Do psychiatrists, and academics in particular, have something to learn in this way from watching live music? What are the main challenges in balancing content with an appealing delivery? Any landmines to steer clear of?!

Anyone who prepares a talk for an audience should know that you can’t just read out a text, make no eye contact with the audience and then leave without further interaction. Planning how to draw an audience in, keeping an eye on them as you go along, engaging the audience in an improvisation at the end once the theme has been set up – obviously that’s a performance. I can remember hell and brimstone preachers occasionally from the early 1960s – are there modern equivalents?

There are bombastic hymns, there are lecturers who sometimes want to make fun of an audience or a rival point of view – politics is always a bad intrusion into academic communication. Of course we should be political, we should write journalism too (like this piece) but that’s not the same thing at all as speaking academically. Academic lecturing always includes evidence.

Most scientific communication is a work of collective creativity and would be impossible unless it was inclusive. The recent attempt to tighten the rules on authorship seem to me to be mistaken. But I occasionally hear other researchers citing something I have written in ways that surprise me – a bit like hearing someone covering a song you have written in a style you never anticipated.

We would be interested to know a little more about your own music. What style is it?

It’s very loud. And it’s a collective production, only partly ‘my own’. And a lot better for that.

Can you recommend a song or piece of music for our mental well-being?

Regularly playing any music at all with other people would be my recommendation. Next would be going out to live music.

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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.