When we think of therapy you might imagine sitting awkwardly on a sofa while a stern middle-aged man wearing glasses scribbles away on his notepad. You might imagine a woman showing you pictures of ink blotches. You might even imagine journaling your darkest thoughts away in a notebook every night. What probably doesn’t come to mind is listening to loud and aggressive music to cheer yourself up.
But one clinical psychologist begs to differ. We got to chat with full-time NHS worker and founder of Heavy Metal Therapy, Dr Kate Quinn. Heavy Metal Therapy (HMT) is a community project which is about the link between heavy metal and mental health, which argues that for many heavy metal enthusiasts, the extreme music they listen to is actually good for their emotional wellbeing.
Dr Kate is an avid fan of metal and heavy rock (particularly Nine Inch Nails), and has found solace in the thrashing drums, shredding guitar, and growling vocals of the genre. Having worked with teenagers and young adults, Kate stumbled across a trend of heavy metal fans finding the music to be a good stress and anxiety relief. Though typically, the music is assumed to be listened when said listener is angry or sad, however HMT encourages us all to see the healthy and useful side to engaging with the anger in heavy metal.
The community psychology project started off as a little Facebook page and has grown exponentially from there through the power of social media. Currently, their Facebook page has over 6000 followers despite their initial aim being only 100. The group works to delve into the psychological side to heavy metal, particularly what happens when people listen to metal. Since experiencing such unprecedented growth, HMT are now able to offer workshops and are even selling merch.
Though the project initially started as a hobby, Dr Quinn recognises the higher levels of engagement requires a much heavier workload and far more responsibility. Her voice is tinged with gratitude when she explains the amount of time the metal community has invested in making sure the community project stayed afloat – “if people didn’t do stuff for us for free, we couldn’t exist.”
Since taking off, HMT has become a great resource for the people. The project builds on the connection between heavy metal and depression and has since evolved into a brand of sorts, but one with ‘values and principles’ Kate quickly stresses.
When discussing the germination of Heavy Metal Therapy, Dr Quinn admits that for a long time she thought her love for the genre wasn’t helpful – apart from conversing with angsty teenage boys she jokes.
“I did a piece of work with a particular client; we spent a long time building up his back story using heavy-metal lyrics. For example, thinking about like the way it helped him. We used to always joke that it was like doing heavy metal therapy, and from that we sort of started thinking that they must be other people like this. There’s something about the sharing of [recovery] stories that we think is really powerful and really helpful.”
Though HMT is not particularly about that initial teenage client’s story, the idea of metal music as a tool that can be used to quantify experiences and that many can relate to the anguish and anger often fuelling the genre, helped spark the idea of Heavy Metal Therapy.
“My background is in the Hearing Voices Movement where they do a lot of sharing of stories and I believe that’s really powerful part of recovery,” Kate explains. For context, the Hearing Voices Movement (HVM) is a ground-breaking movement that builds upon the book Living with Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery, to amplify the experiences of people who hear voices as a lived experience. HVM produced various hearing voices groups up and down the UK and worked well to create a sort of “community healing,” through the cathartic exchange of lived experiences.
“I guess we sort of attempted to create [Heavy Metal Therapy] out of some of the ethos of that, but on social media and or on the Internet.”
Though HMT has its own mission statement and ten principles, Dr Quinn narrows it down to one defining trait: “It’s very much by the metal community for the metal community – that’s the idea.”
“We have these resources; we have these stories…I often think of us being a bit like a library rather than a support group.”
Despite heavy metal music’s ostracization by society and labelling as a ‘destructive’ or even ‘demonic’ subculture, Dr Quinn is confident in its ability to benefit many fans’ mental health.
“We have a little bit of a responsibility to do a bit of myth busting about the negative stereotypes about heavy metal music,” she states. “And [a responsibility to] try and understand a little bit more about what’s happening in terms of all these people that are saying that this is a really important part of their lives. And music is isn’t it? A massive part of loads of people’s lives. And I really think it’s sort of underused in therapy.”
The psychology project involves a combination of work within the community and outreach, as well as the sharing of good news within the group. Though the organisation hasn’t received much support from the music industries or famous bands or musicians, they have thrived through support that is community generated. “It’s got a grassroots feel to it which I really like,” confesses Kate.
Despite the home-grown support and initial small volunteer base, HMT has made huge strides in psychiatry.
“A few weeks ago we managed to get a bit of Heavy Metal Therapy into The Lancet Psychiatry which is like a major journal in mental health which is really cool.”
“But really the best thing about it is the sort of the feedback you get from the community members. We get really really great feedback from people and the stuff they’re willing to share and contribute – that’s always going to be the best thing about it.”
As the project relies heavily on community support, Dr Quinn encourages those interested to get involved. So we ask, how can we get involved?
“There’s loads of stuff,” Kate says. “If people have personal stories that they want to share that’s great, it can be anonymous – just drop us a DM on socials or email us.”
Contributors have the opportunity to write blogs for the project or if they have a certain topic that they want to discuss, they are given a platform to do so.
“People can follow us on social media and can contribute to things like building playlists or sometimes people participate in little bits of research that we’re doing ourselves or can it put people to contribute to.”
“If you have a skill in something like marketing or you’re brave and want to tell the people about it, that’s also great. Spreading the word is the main thing. We don’t care if you’re in a band with a million followers or you’ve got three friends on Facebook or never leave your bedroom, we’re interested in what you’ve got to say.”
Dr Kate Quinn’s own background in clinical psychology has been quite a journey. The professional field is particularly competitive and requires years and years of dedication but she admits she had a stroke of luck.
“So, you know I did a lot of research…and it just so happened to be that there were some psychology related projects that I could get involved with at an assistant level. I totally came to clinical psychology through geekiness. That was it. At the time I was a professional questionnaire scorer and really only got into the more sort of lived experience side of things, and peer support co-production stuff, when I was pretty much nearly qualified actually. That’s when I got involved with the Hearing Voices movement and started working in early intervention which became a really big passion of mine, going on over ten years now.”
Heavy Metal Therapy is more focused on the wider picture as opposed to offering individual support/group therapy.The group works to challenge conventions of therapy and traditions of self-care that often leaves people discouraged.
“First of all, I think that not everybody finds the traditional self-care stuff to be that helpful, a lot of people get disheartened, let’s say they do some meditation and it doesn’t seem to quite work for them. I’ve never been able to do meditation… for me lifting weights is a more mindful practice.”
“We do a lot of stuff about wellness and the idea of wellness and that there’s lots of different things that support people’s wellbeing and that might include stuff that you might not think are your classic wellness activities. It could be about angry music, for example we do metal mindfulness when we do the workshops.”
Dr Quinn defines metal mindfulness as using music that starts off in a traditional mindfulness way (she describes it as ‘a bit tinkly’), and then lets the music build into something really heavy. As the crescendo builds, listeners are advised to tune into it and think about what resonates with them specifically.
“We’re trying to make the point that when we talk about things like selfcare, compassion, wellness, it’s not necessarily what you think it is, that can include engaging with some stuff that’s difficult. For example, that can include alternative wellbeing activities that don’t fit with the mould of what you might be expected to do.”
Essentially, the premise is that it’s mindfulness but according to the person and their individual tastes.
Kate goes onto add, “When I do bits of work with people, I really adapt it to what they are interested in and what they find helpful, and for some people, that’s stuff like metal and that’s fine and valid and legitimate.”
“I think a lot of people who like metal have been dismissed about their interests, and that there has been quite a lot of stigma around liking certain kinds of music.”
HMT works by bringing the metal community together to inspire self-care. Inclusivity is integral to the community project and HMT aspires to have a wide variety on their playlists so everyone has something that they can relate to or enjoy. The group don’t gatekeep the playlists either.
Kate stresses “[we] don’t like metal elitists…if someone says they like something and they relate to that and that means something to them, I think that we all should respect that because that’s them showing vulnerability.
They even have playlists on Spotify that allow members of the community to contribute to and create themselves. Some of the top artists featuring include Kill Switch, Bury Tomorrow, Slipknot, Megadeath and the Architects. There are lots of things in the pipeline for this innovative group; a blog about their Wellness Movement has been published in a psychiatry magazine and now unsigned bands who follow HMT, are being given the opportunity to create a playlist of their own work that relates to mental health.
Words: Jay Mitra
You can find out more about Heavy Metal Therapy below: