Credit: Elena Coderoni Rigamonti


Jaz Henry investigates the links between mental health and music, interviewing some of the people involved in schemes that hope to make music therapy a mainstream alternative to the outrageously limited options usually available.

When thinking about mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety or other conditions as dementia and autism, one thing that may not come to mind, but which is related to all, is music. Recent studies and investigations show that learning an instrument and getting involved in music has been shown to improve the mental wellbeing of people in all these categories and represents a viable option for people suffering from mental illness or learning disabilities. It is exciting to see that exploring the psychological elements of music in its various forms may open a path to better understanding of mental health and new avenues for treatment.

Last year an all-party parliamentary group concerned with the arts, health and wellbeing published an inquiry outlining the current state of research pertaining to the link between mental illness and the arts, citing the 2004 ONS prevalence study which stated that “an estimated one in ten children in Britain had a mental health problem, including anxiety, serious depression and hyperkinetic disorders.” The same inquiry also cited a report by Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce titled Future in Mind which included data showing that “only 25 to 35 percent of young people with a diagnosable mental health condition accessed support.” For adults, the inquiry writes: “one in six adults has a diagnosable mental health condition” and “in 2012, mental health problems in the under-65’s accounted for almost half of all health problems diagnosed by the NHS, the majority of them manifesting as anxiety and depression.” Clearly, the state and prevalence of mental health conditions is more than concerning, and the traditional services such as counselling and medication are not always enough or suited to all. This is where the creative alternative or addition of learning an instrument or otherwise becoming involved in music could represent the ideal support for many.

Jess Johnson, a professional musician, spoke out about her experience of using music to overcome her recovery from Sepsis, a life-threatening condition that left her with severe anxiety. On the immediate effect of the condition, she said “it halted my life substantially.” After having survived the ordeal with the help of medical staff, she admits “I didn’t want to leave the hospital. I wanted to stay, because I had been looked after and they had saved my life.” The trauma of the event resulted in a prolonged period of anxiety. However, rather than resort to the traditional methods of addressing anxiety such as counselling and medication, she turned to song-writing and singing, which she knew to be effective tools in dealing with mental health conditions, having been raised in a musical family. She said, “doctors can often offer things like medication and counselling and I chose not to take any of that because I felt that my music and writing could be the way that I could recover, because it was and it is,” adding “music was the thing that kept me going.” Jess is now fully recovered and uses her experience with music to teach others who are often suffering from depression or anxiety following personal losses or abuse. About these individuals, she declared, “there are people that nobody sees, but when they do music, they feel like they are being listened to or heard”. She recognises a uniquely therapeutic element in music that results in “something that is released within you that can help separate your thoughts and bring your mind into a calmer place.”

For many people who have not been brought up with music, Jess’s account may seem like a privileged incident, available and effective only to those with a musical background. Various charities across the UK aim at eliminating this barrier and establishing music as a shared and common method of fighting mental health conditions. Katherine Waumsley, a music practitioner and lead musician for Common Wheel, a Glasgow based charity aimed at providing a creative outlet for people who may not otherwise have equal opportunity in taking part in arts and culture, said “it’s about not excluding people,” adding “they have the right to take part in life to its fullest.” Common Wheel runs various participatory music projects across Glasgow for people with mental illness, working in hospital wards, dementia care homes and communities, emphasising the aspect of music as a social interaction. In relation to the benefits of such music sessions, Waumsley explained that “being part of a group and taking part and being active helps people socially in terms of making connections and with people with dementia, they seem brighter, feel happier or less agitated.” She added that Common Wheel had even received reports that there were less requests for the on-demand medication for calming people once they had taken part in an interactive music session. On the availability and effectiveness of music as a tool in combating mental illness, she said, “Everyone’s recovery is different” and “it can be hard due to financial and digital exclusion”, but that “music and the arts are part of life. They are part of recovery, feeling safe, being empowered, having value and having something constructive to do.”, adding “we are part of a pattern of care and support”.

The manifold benefits of music in relation to mental illness have largely been accepted and are formalised in the practice of music therapy. Similar to the projects run by Common Wheel, music therapy is offered to people with mental health conditions, with the express aim being to target aspects of these conditions and improve the wellbeing of the participants. The musical sessions, in which participants are encouraged to take part in singing or playing an instrument, are facilitated and guided by a qualified music therapist. Clare Reynolds, one such music therapist, described the music sessions as being capable of inducing “a sense of shared calmness,” adding “the great thing about music is that it’s spontaneous, it’s non-verbal, it’s non-threatening, in many ways” and “it is an awakening”. For Clare, the focus is on redeveloping what she calls “positive attachments.” Working a lot with children, she often finds that they have developed negative attachments to their parents, schoolmates or other factors in their surroundings, resulting in them becoming emotionally introverted and reclusive. By introducing music into their lives and allowing them to non-verbally express themselves in a safe environment, they are able to redevelop a positive attachment with an instrument, music and the therapist. Clare told the story of a young boy with autism who would not speak and was unable to communicate, but who changed substantially over time with the encouragement of music therapy and went from being generally excluded to generally included at school and is now doing “brilliantly well”.

The positive effects of music and learning an instrument in addressing mental health conditions are widespread and unfortunately often overlooked in the debate on how to tackle mental illness. The common theme that runs throughout the discussions on the benefits of music indicate that it represents a creative space for non-verbal communication which most people suffering from a mental health condition do not believe they have. Shared in a group, actively making music forms social connections and friendships that otherwise would not be formed due to the nature of mental health conditions, often making verbal communication difficult. On an individual level, playing an instrument can be a form of release, relieving people of their emotional burdens and giving them a sense of achievement and purpose. All these aspects serve as important elements in building confidence and forming trusting relationships outside the music sphere, allowing for the possibility of healthier and happier lives for people dealing with mental health issues.

For more information about music therapy, you can check out the website for Music as Therapy International, the organisation that Clare Reynolds is a member of:

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