Accessing the Mental Health Benefits of Music Therapy

Perhaps it was a song that struck an emotional chord with you at a particularly dark moment — or a wave of rhythm and sound that swept you up and raised your spirits. Maybe picking up a six-string or beating the drums helps you clarify some things and cut through the noise outside and inside your mind.

Whatever your relationship with music — a full embrace or more arm’s length — for many the medium has the power to connect and bring not only mental clarity but healing. And beyond casual listening or playing for pleasure, that power is tapped in structured ways through music therapy. Music therapists, professionals whose training includes at least two to three years in an undergraduate or graduate music therapy program, use it to help treat a wide range of conditions, including mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Commonly, music therapy is delivered as part of a multidisciplinary approach to care when it’s provided in long-term care or mental health facilities and hospitals as well as in some outpatient or community settings. Music therapists collaborate with nurses, social workers and doctors — “they are part of the team,” says Melita Belgrave, an associate professor of music therapy at Arizona State University, and chair of the International Society for Music Education Commission on Special Music Education and Music Therapy.

[See: How Music Helps People With Alzheimer’s Disease.]

The approaches to music therapy, which is done in group and individual settings, vary as well. “There’s not one specific music therapy intervention that works for all clients,” Belgrave says. Instead music therapists usually have a variety of interventions they might employ. And while listening to music is sometimes part of it — it’s not about passive enjoyment; music therapists engage clients often in making the music — though no musical experience or acumen on the part of the client is required. That might include “things like songwriting, where you get to talk about where you are and where you’d like to be and using the music to help process that information for them — or working on lyric analysis,” Belgrave says. Among other things, bringing a song into the mix that the person connects with affords the opportunity to talk about themes in the song, such as death or grief, that a person is dealing with in their own lives, to facilitate natural, meaningful discussion and work through difficult emotions. “Sometimes it’s difficult for people to just immediately talk about their emotions or immediately talk about positive coping skills and how they could do things differently in their lives,” Belgrave says.

Research shows music therapy may be helpful for people who’ve experienced trauma — from witnessing atrocities on the battlefield to being sexually abused — and those with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a review published last year in the journal Psychomusicology, “music therapy may be a useful therapeutic tool to reduce symptoms and improve functioning among individuals with trauma exposure and PTSD, though more rigorous empirical study is required.”

Another review also published last year in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, evaluating the research on music therapy for treatment of depression, provided some support for its use to address the mood disorder as well. Patients saw a greater reduction in depressive symptoms when music therapy was coupled with traditional treatment — medication, psychotherapy (or talk therapy) or a combination — versus traditional treatment alone in the short-term, or up to three months. “To date, researchers have mainly considered short-term interventions and have provided limited attention to long-term effects of music therapy extending over more than six months,” the researchers noted.

As in the case of treating depression or PTSD, experts say music therapy is meant to be a supplement — not a replacement — for other forms of treatment.

[Read: 6 Reasons Going to Concerts Is Good for Your Health.]

“Music therapy appears to hold promise as a complementary treatment for PTSD,” says Adrienne Heinz, a research scientist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System in California. Heinz, a co-author of the review in Psychomusicology, also directs the health system’s Substance and Anxiety Intervention Laboratory . “More specifically, music therapy may be considered a resilience-enhancing intervention, as it can help trauma-exposed individuals harness their ability to recover elements of normality in their life following great adversity,” she says. “Resilience is cultivated through processes that reduce stress and fear, increase self-confidence and foster social support. These mechanisms are also addressed by music therapy.”

While Heinz reiterates that music therapy isn’t a substitute for other therapies that are tailored to individuals who’ve been exposed to trauma, it provides another viable option. Experts say music therapy offers an easier “in” for some patients who may be otherwise reluctant to seek mental health treatment — or who’ve had trouble sticking with traditional forms of therapy. “Music therapy may offer a more accessible and less stigmatizing therapeutic option for treating posttraumatic stress. There is evidence that music therapy reduces stress and anxiety in other clinical populations (e.g. children, individuals with depression, Alzheimer’s patients) which suggests it may have the potential to improve clinical and functional outcomes and foster resilience among individuals struggling with posttraumatic stress,” Heinz says. “Furthermore, music is evidenced to reduce emotional distress, foster social connectedness, and improve overall well-being.”

That’s not to say it’s for everyone. As with any therapy, some people respond more readily to music therapy than others. For those wanting to explore whether it may be a viable option or adjunct to treatment, and who are already undergoing other forms of therapy, that professional they’re seeing may be able to suggest music therapists. Or state — and depending on the area, sometimes local — music therapy associations provide lists of practicing music therapists in that region. For those just getting started, the American Music Therapy Association website also provides information and resources.

Group music therapy provides a way for people struggling with a range of mental health disorders or challenges, from depression to addiction, to connect and interact with others. “Sometimes that something that’s lost when people are suffering from mental illnesses and conditions [is] just being able to relate to people,” says Ellen Ritchey, an instructor of music therapy and clinical coordinator for the music therapy program at the University of Georgia. “And music creates an atmosphere that’s conducive for that.”

[See: How to Find the Best Mental Health Professional for You.]

In a sense, music therapy can help people find their voice, when — at first — they’re struggling to find the words. In addition to group music therapy, Ritchey says with individual music therapy, “you can work with a particular client writing a song, improvising music, creating music that expresses their particular needs, their particular thoughts and feelings, giving them a way to express themselves.”

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