As a child, Alaric loved to sing. He was in the school choir as a young boy. As he got older, he joined a band, taking up the bassoon.
Music, he said, was a refuge from social awkwardness and bullying in his early years. It came naturally and connected him to the essence of who he was. It lifted his spirit. It is not surprising that it was music that ultimately lifted him out of some of his darkest days as an adult.
In 1994, at the age of 25 and having just completed his bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Calgary, Alaric spent one month in the hospital and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and depression. It was an experience that would foreshadow the ups and downs of his mental health journey in the years to follow.
It was his first realization that living with mental health challenges would not be easy. With medical support, he moved to Vancouver in 1996 to pursue his master’s degree in archival studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“It took me longer than I expected because of my challenges,” Alaric said. “My first job in archives also showed me that I wasn’t well suited to many jobs in the field.”
That discovery, after so much work and time, led to another period of severe depression.
“The highlight of my week was collecting sales flyers from stores like Future Shop, Best Buy and London Drugs. I was not getting much done and was becoming isolated, even from the friends I had from UBC,” he said. “While this was happening, a counsellor who knew about my musical background, recommended the Highs & Lows Choir.”
It was a recommendation that changed his life.
The Highs & Lows, established in the mid-1990s, is a choir for people with mental health challenges. It subscribes to the notion that art – in its many forms – is good medicine for almost any ailment, including mental health. The choir’s more than 25 years of success and over 200 participants would agree; including Alaric who has been part of the choir since 2003.
“It grabbed me from the first day and it has expanded my resource network, friendships and ability to make a living,” Alaric said. He has also made important connections because of the choir, including joining additional choirs, learning the recorder and teaching music theory – things that have led to an ever-increasing sense of purpose and belonging.
Alaric is quick to point out that he has not been “cured” of his mental health challenges. Mental health rarely works that way. But he has learned to live with, and recover from, his setbacks in ways that he was unable to before the choir – and music – were reintroduced to his life.
“More recently, I have been able to get back into the flow of life when something does happen,” he said. “Now I have a better sense of myself … what I want … what I’m good at. I have more confidence. All of it has come from my rich connections with Highs & Lows.”
Research shows that connection to community and a sense of belonging can be incredibly valuable to those living with mental-health challenges. Earlier this year, the Highs & Lows Choir received $15,000 from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions to continue its work and to co-ordinate a community dialogue event to discuss how the arts can play a larger role in transforming mental health.
For more information on mental wellness over the holidays, visit: https://news.gov.bc.ca/21263
For more information about the Highs & Lows Choir, visit: https://highsandlowschoir.ca/