The UK’s first orchestra created to support the mental health of emergency services personnel is to give its debut concert in central London on Friday 28 October.

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The Blue Light Symphony Orchestra, comprising members of the police, ambulance and fire services, is to perform Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at St John’s, Smith Square.

Proceeds from Friday’s concert will fund music therapy for 999 personnel suffering serious mental health problems such as PTSD, chronic stress and anxiety.

The orchestra’s conductor, Detective Sergeant Seb Valentine, who works in Surrey Police, set up the orchestra in 2015 for players’ enjoyment. 'Music has always been important to my mental wellbeing, and I wanted to share that,' said Valentine, who entered the police after training at the Royal College of Music and working as a freelance musician for six years.

The orchestra has held a number of ad hoc workshop days – which worked better around members’ shift patterns than regular rehearsals – and appeared on ITV’s A Night for the Emergency Services in 2017. After a long break around the pandemic, Friday’s concert marks the orchestra’s first public performance. The ensemble, which is a registered charity, includes 999 personnel and NHS staff, members of the armed forces, and others who support the orchestra’s ethos.

Valentine said there was something special about 'having a group of people who've all got that kind of shared, traumatic experience of having been exposed to so much of life and death … There's a kind of shared understanding in the room … people don't need to talk about it. There's a safety net there.'

PC Ruiko Asaba, a response and patrol officer with Hampshire Constabulary Police, has played the violin with BLSO since its inception and is a trustee of the ensemble. She described having to repeatedly take charge of a situation as 'sticking [out] like a sore thumb', but 'when you play in an orchestra, you have to put your ego aside … and I find my place in the world.'

Valentine learnt of music therapy being used with armed services veterans in the US with great success, and is keen for it to be one of the options available to 999 personnel. While he says music therapy is 'not the panacea', he argued that cognitive behavioural therapy, which is commonly offered by the NHS, and campaigns that encourage people to talk about difficult experiences, are not suitable for everyone.

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'What we know about traumatic memory and the way it's processed – or the way that it gets stuck when it's not processed leading to things like PTSD – is that it hasn't gone into the bit of the brain yet that allows you to process it into language. Whereas music, art therapy and other things like that get into that bit of the brain where the traumatic memories are stored, and allow you to start processing them in a different way,' he said.

He said if someone in the emergency services is struggling with their mental health, it may be because of 'this kind of cumulative, complex PTSD, where you're dealing with things that are … stressful and traumatic all the time.'

Last year Valentine arranged a 12-week pilot project with two small groups of officers from Surrey Police and Sussex Police, with £10,000 funding from the Government’s Coronavirus Community Support Fund.

Music therapist Samantha Thorpe, who ran the pilot project, said those who volunteered to take part in the sessions 'had been diagnosed with PTSD in the past, were sort of stable … but wanted some additional help; or they were people who were feeling highly anxious in the workplace, who did have sleep disturbances and felt very vulnerable.'

Thorpe, who works with the arts therapy provider Chroma, said physical exercises carried out in a group, such as drumming or clapping, can 'build up confidence … and take you out of yourself'. The participants also learnt breathing and humming techniques to help regulate feelings of anxiety. Before and after the course, participants completed questionnaires routinely used by healthcare professionals to measure anxiety levels, and the vast majority recorded a decrease.

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Thorpe added that participants 'definitely felt better that they had tools that they could use, that [the course] had brought new self-awareness that they felt they could transfer out into their daily lives'.