A mental health worker’s love of music is helping to heal the people he works with | TheUnion.com

A mental health worker’s love of music is helping to heal the people he works with

Tom McHugh, a personal services coordinator at Turning Point in Grass Valley, has created a new music program, "Community in Tune," geared for people who have severe and persistent mental health diagnoses.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

To donate a guitar to Turning Point’s “Community in Tune” project, contact Tom McHugh at ThomasMcHugh@tpcp.org, or call 530-273-5440, ext. 3213.

When Tom McHugh first picked up a guitar as a boy, he couldn’t have guessed all the places it would take him. As a young man in his 20s, McHugh’s love of travel took him to remote villages in Central and South America, many tucked away in the mountains of Panama, Argentina and Patagonia. Where technology was sparse, music flourished, and McHugh — with a guitar strapped to his pack — discovered how quickly he was embraced when he expressed his interest in traditional folk songs. Music, it seemed, was the great connector across cultures, and this experience impacted McHugh’s life path profoundly.

Later, in his professional life, McHugh became an English teacher in Denver, Colorado, where he organized a student music group, which eventually led him to his career today.

Now living in Grass Valley, McHugh works in the mental health field with Turning Point Community Programs, where he helps facilitate bilingual wellness projects through the Partners Family Resource Center. Through Turning Point, which is a nonprofit mental health services agency that serves people who have severe and persistent mental health diagnoses, McHugh has crafted a new music program.


Deemed “Community in Tune,” participants learn to play the guitar, strengthen communication skills and develop an individualized wellness recovery plan.

“Emphasis will be placed on stress management, interpersonal social skills and symptom reduction,” said McHugh. “Graduates of this eight-week program will earn a certificate, keep a guitar and will be encouraged to support new members by participating as alumni. They can become teachers of newer participants.”

“Our philosophy with the folks we serve is strength-based and person-centered,” said Heather Vance, program director at Turning Point. “We encourage people to use their strengths and gifts. This includes establishing groups based on interests — Tom’s group is one of those. Through groups, people can create their own wellness plans. Socialization is so important. For some people, it’s the only time they get out of the house.”

These programs are geared for adults who have severe mental illness and need the highest level of support in order to remain living in the community safely, added Vance. Funded by Medi-Cal, Turning Point caseworkers only work with 10 clients at a time. They see them as often as once a week or, in some cases, once a day.

Despite the fact that the music program exists on a tight budget, McHugh said he’s not interested in monetary donations.

“We’re hoping you’ll donate a guitar,” he said with a smile. “That way the donation represents a connection between the community and folks who have a need. If your guitar is just sitting around collecting dust, why not donate it?”

While the program is still in its early stages, Vance said she’s already seeing encouraging signs. There are longtime clients who have a connection to music that she’d never been aware of.

“Some have been disconnected for so long, then someone like Tom with a passion for music comes along and is pulling those people out — it’s exciting,” she said. “Many people lack a purpose — they don’t work or go to school. Music has given them a purpose and this can bring recovery so much quicker. I know someone who has had a rough life and has been very negative and sad for a long time. When I asked him what brought him joy, the one thing he said is music. He hadn’t tapped into it for many years.”


Encouraging and emerging research in the field of music and neuroscience suggests there are measurable benefits to learning an instrument.

“Playing a musical instrument strengthens and restores a number of neural circuits,” said neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., on Monday from his office at McGill University in Montreal. “It can have many benefits for at-risk populations.”

Levitin studies the neuroscience of music and how it affects mental and physical health. He is the author of the book, “This Is Your Brain on Music.” McHugh has reached out to Levitin, who has expressed his support for the program.

In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Levitin noted that early evidence suggests that “music can alter pain thresholds. It can increase immune system functions. There’s stronger evidence that it can affect mood and heart rate and respiration rate.”

But you don’t have to tell McHugh that. He sees it all the time.

“I started this job about two months ago and I’m lucky to work in such a supportive environment — I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I’ve had some cool jobs in the past, but this is by far the most rewarding. Now, about those donations …”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.