Music Therapy at WISH Drop-In is unique and seeks to meet the needs of women in the Downtown Eastside. Karaoke and music bingo take place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday outside in the respite area where there is room to compile to physical distancing protocols. The program takes place during dinner time when they see the highest number of people. Music Therapist Christina is onsite three nights a week.
The karaoke program makes singing very accessible to many. It’s a way for participants to support and encourage one another, and also a chance for staff to sing along with participants, deepening relationships. Singing in front of a group creates a performance aspect that increases the participants’ sense of accomplishment. With encouragement from staff and participants there have been a few women who had never performed, and who overcame their fear and sang karaoke.
Music Bingo is also popular. Participants pick which genre they would like to listen to, and get a bingo card filled with songs from that genre. When the music therapist plays the song, the participants mark it on their bingo card. Prizes like perfume, makeup or other valued items are offered. It is very common to find participants singing enthusiastically together. There is a feeling of connection and togetherness when everyone is playing and singing together. The music also evokes memories and offers a chance to reminisce and share stories and laughter with one another.
Music Therapy has been warmly welcomed back by participants and staff after a short hiatus due to the pandemic. Since the program resumed in August 2021, 48 women have participated in one or more Music Therapy activities. Several participants have come back to the program and many new participants have joined, and WISH is seeing the highest number of women attending since the program started six years ago. One evening, participants were even singing along to karaoke inside the drop-in centre and the bathroom!
Music Therapy at WISH Drop-In gives women a chance to socialize, sing, release stress and experience joy in a safe and meaningful way. Whether belting out Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” or quietly singing Kris Kristofferson, the music therapy program continues to be flexible and evolve to best serve the women coming to WISH.
WISH serves women and gender diverse folks who are current and former street-based sex workers. WISH respects that the gender spectrum is fluid and, as an organization that is committed to inclusion, our programs are open and responsive to cis and trans women and people of marginalized genders, including Two-Spirit, trans, and non-binary people.
19 – 70
Addressing the mental health needs of participants has always been the goal of the Music Therapy program at WISH. This year, the need for mental health support was much greater due to isolation and grief being experienced by the community from the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the opioid crisis.
The BC Coroners Service reports that “the 1,011 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and June 2021 are the highest ever recorded in the first six months of a calendar year and represent a 34% increase over the number of deaths recorded between January and June 2020 (757)” (Taken from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/birth-adoption-death-marriage-and-divorce/deaths/coroners-service/statistical/illicit-drug.pdf page1)
One of the participants likened the continual deaths to the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) soldiers experience coming back from war. The pandemic has compounded the issues that participants face on a daily basis including access to safe housing, medical, and social services, isolation, and stigma.
The ongoing poisoned drug supply has resulted in many overdose deaths in the community which has been weighing heavy on both participants and staff. WISH itself has lost two staff and two participants in a period of four weeks. One of the staff suggested dedicating a karaoke night for one of the long-time participants who passed away. They had a “karaoke memorial” where participants shared memories, sang karaoke and suggested songs to listen to. It was beautiful to see participants and staff honour her in this way.
Navigating The Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
One of the impacts of the ongoing pandemic was the’single site order. This order dictated that folks who worked in long-term care centres were not able to work at other facilities so as not to put the residents in jeopardy. Prior to taking her maternity leave, Music Therapist Lucy Thomas was working at WISH and at a long term care facility. Due to the single site order, Lucy was permitted to work at only one facility, so in January 2021 she temporarily left WISH to work at the long term care home. Another MT, Christina Tsikata, began her maternity leave in January 2021 and returned in July 2021.
WISH chose to suspend the music therapy program because it would have been difficult to hire a therapist for such a short term, as it takes about three to four months to build up rapport with the participants. Had there not been a pandemic, and the single site order, Lucy would have been able to stay at WISH from January and there would not have been any interruption of services.
Thankfully Music Therapy sessions have resumed as of August 2021.
Adopting this program will allow WISH to sustain current music therapy programming of three sessions a week as well as additional one-on-one follow up sessions each week. This equates to approximately 500 hours of music therapy in 2022.
“Erica is a retired sex worker and comes to WISH for many of the services we offer. Although she’s had offers from her family members to stay with them, she prefers to live at WISH. For Erica, WISH is her home. Erica has been attending the music therapy program since its inception. She is an active participant, making song requests during karaoke and playing music bingo. Erica was happy to share feedback about how the music therapy program helps her. When asked to describe what she thinks about the music therapy program she responded, “I enjoy the music; it relaxes me. It gives me good memories. It changes everybody’s mood and brings everyone together.”
Erica recently lost her daughter to an unexpected death. During group [sessions], she has requested songs that her daughter loved, including a song that was played at her funeral. Erica says that coming to Music Therapy makes her feel happier, and provides a space for her to express her grief, relax, share memories, and connect with others.”
*Name and identifying details have been changed to conceal identity.