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Interview: Lily-Jo, songwriter, counsellor

26 May 2023

‘It’s important not to allow the stigma of mental illness from getting in the way of seeking help’

My daily life is incredibly busy. Aside from running the Lily-Jo Project, writing music, and being a professional counsellor, I’m a mother to two children.

After meeting so many people at gigs, and hearing them tell me some of their life stories, I was moved to create the Lily-Jo Project: an online mental-health resource, which now provides mental-health workshops to schools, and mental-health curriculum to schools. I wanted to create a bridge between my music and my mental-health resources.

I’ve always been an empathetic person, and, after I went through some personal trauma of my own, I really came to see the value of mental-health intervention, and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve been making music since I was a teenager, and, for many years, I was lucky enough to be part of LZ7, an English Christian electronic-dance-music group based in Manchester. It was a great place to learn my craft and find my own voice as a musician.

I played lots of different instruments, but, in the end, I stuck with singing as my main instrument. I write songs by sitting down with other songwriters, telling them what I want to talk about; and we write around that theme. I try to think about what empowers young people, like, what it means to be unstoppable, and we begin to write around the room — mind-mapping, really. I’ve worked with Philippa Hanna, who plays the guitar, and Chris Eaton, who plays the piano and who wrote songs for Cliff Richard. My husband is a musician, too, and he plays the guitar.

I balance it all by scheduling and being very organised, putting dates in the diary in advance, and so on. If I’m songwriting, that will be on a weekend away. I do my counselling on Wednesdays. I make sure everything has its own place in the diary, making sure I have dedicated time to do each thing in the week. The Lily-Jo Project took a lot of time to set up; now, I just have to make sure it ticks along, writing newsletters, organising dates — the work changes from week to week.

It’s not difficult, because it’s what I’m feel called to do. It’s my purpose. Yes, it’s tiring, and takes a lot of energy, but at the same time I feel I’m meant to do it; so therefore I have the stamina for it. I look after myself, taking time to rest, do things to help me not burn out.

I’ve been a parent for 15 years now, and that really helps me to understand young people. Working in schools provides lots of insights. I have a very open relationship with my children, and I try and cultivate that; so I’m well-informed, and I’m not speaking out of turn.

My book Talking to Children about Mental Health is a manual for parents. I’ve had really good feedback. There was a message on social media saying that this reader had sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, and thought she knew them really well, but she’d learned so much from the book about seeing the world from their perspective. She normally passes books on, but she wants to keep this book as a reference. So that’s very good.

When I began touring around the world as part of a band, our primary audience was young people. I would often share stories from my life when I was onstage as a way of connecting with them — and, soon, they began sharing stories back. I began to realise that there was a gap in mental-health support for young people, and that’s what I wanted to fill.

The number of children needing medical treatment for serious mental-health problems has risen 39 per cent from last year. One in six young people in England experienced a mental-health problem in 2020, which is up from one in nine young people in 2017. The numbers speak for themselves: young people need our help.

As trained counsellors, we use a set of criteria for diagnosis of mental illness, which help us understand the persistence of symptoms and how they impact a person’s life. I do think it’s important, though, not to allow the stigma of mental illness from getting in the way of seeking help.

Sadness doesn’t need to be at a certain level of severity in order to warrant attention or assistance. A person can need help managing their mental health and well-being without being officially diagnosed with a mental illness: in fact, a lot of mental-health professionals would say that it’s good. Early intervention and counselling when feeling perpetual sadness can reduce the likelihood that the sadness will become clinical depression.

The fact is, we all have mental health, just as we have spiritual health and physical health. When we normalise checking in on that mental health, when we normalise talking about it, we create a culture where it is less likely that people will bottle things up. This reduces stigma and reduces fear of having a mental illness — which, in turn, reduces the occurrences in young people and adults needing late-stage intervention for mental-health conditions.

I grew up with music. My grandparents were musicians, and so are my parents; so, while other children were playing house, I was playing bands. The first band I formed was at the age of ten. We were called Electrik Shock! I had so much exposure to music growing up that I can’t deny my family were my inspiration.

Everything I do is connected. When I write music, I write for real people, people who are experiencing real struggles. I see those struggles up close in my counselling work, and seeing people’s needs fuels my songwriting. I want every song I write to reach people and connect with them and, hopefully, help them feel supported.

I can’t pinpoint a unique first experience of God, because I was born into the Christian faith and went to church every week thereafter.

My relationship with God is very personal. For me, God has given me life and purpose, and each day I choose to walk in step with that purpose. My faith provides me with an anchor, and I am so grateful to God for every good and hard thing I have experienced. For me, doing what I do is a way of serving him.

The sound of my husband and children belly-laughing is my favourite sound.

Young people give me hope for the future. They are so resilient, so eager to learn. They are a compassionate and empathetic generation on everything from equal rights for everyone to the environment. I find them a constant source of inspiration.

Most often, I pray that I will be strengthened to keep doing the work in front of me, which is to treat everyone around me with complete compassion.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, and could have anyone as a companion, I’d choose Nelson Mandela. His resilience and strength blows my mind. His hope for a better future and his compassion is so inspiring to me.

Lily-Jo was talking to Terence Handley MacMath

Talking to Children about Mental Health by Lily-Jo is published by SPCK at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-0-281-08782-2.

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