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Music Therapy Can Help Fill the Mental Health Gap

It’s (almost) time to find a way forward.  Anxiety, stress, general states of complete overwhelm have taken a toll on many of us, those we work with and for, and on those we love.  Research shows that the right resources, including the right people in our lives (professionals and friends), can ease the burden and lead to better days. 

When Statistics Canada shared their results from the Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health 2012 (a new survey is expected shortly) it fell in line with a recommendation by the Canadian Mental Health Commission which outlined the need to “improve mental health data collection, research, and knowledge exchange across Canada.” The survey results confirmed what many clinicians have been feeling – that mental health needs continue to go unmet – and this was all before the pandemic.

Alongside other mental health professionals, Certified Music Therapists (MTAs) are continuing to build their skills and resiliency to help with the increasing need. There is a strong evidence base for music therapy to provide symptomatic relief and improve quality of life. However, as Dr. Bibb from Australia suggests music therapy is often underfunded and framed as a supplementary service. Increasing funding for music therapy as an evidence-based treatment option would help fill an existing service gap and provide equitable access to a cost-effective and often preferred treatment option for patients and clients.

While every music therapy session is different and there is no one prescription, music therapists are frequently asked to address the following mental health goals regardless of the age, diagnosis or general state:

  • decrease stress and/or anxiety
  • reclaim focus and productivity
  • increase comfort in a social environment
  • improve capacity for new learning and attention
  • boost confidence and feelings of self-worth
  • feel better

Here are two ways music therapy can support mental health:

1. Music therapists help people tune into their feelings fast.

One of the most interesting areas of music and science is how quickly music affects the brain’s emotional systems. Groundbreaking research found that music creates pleasurable emotions that light up the mesolimbic pathway, the reward centre of the brain that gives us uplifting feelings.

Music also affects the heart of our brain’s emotional system — the amygdala.   Whenever we see or hear something that makes us feel threatened (or worried, or small), the amygdala fires up, and all you want to do is:

fight – even with someone you care about

flee – even when you were thinking you needed a hug

freeze – and wondering if you ever will find motivation again.

Music can help stamp out this flame.

When Music Therapists use this wonderful resource, music, they aim to activate your hippocampus, where music and memories come alive. When this happens, you will experience more feelings of creativity, inspiration, and warmth. As your stress declines, your frontal cortex will regain control so you can remember what you need to do, tackle a new project with more flexible thinking, or generally feel a level of control you didn’t have just minutes before when you were triggered. The best part? You will be able to make your next, best decision with objectivity and heart.

2. Music therapists help individuals find the right kind of music at the right time.

Music Therapists spend time with you to get to know you. Using your preferences and working with you to choose your specific goals, music therapists incorporate a variety of elements of music including tempos, tones, rhythms, melodies and lyrics that will support your desired mood state – as you work towards your physical, cognitive goals or emotional goals.

For example, clinician, researcher and author in childhood trauma, Dr. Bruce Perry, suggests that  “the only way to move from super-high anxiety states, to calmer more cognitive states, is rhythm,” he says. Music therapists apply this to keep steady rhythms that match the desired mood states of their clients. In support of these findings a meta-analysis indicates that music therapy provides short-term beneficial effects for people with depression. 

Music, more than ever, can be a sure friend. Even during the most challenging of times, music can reassure us that everything is going to be okay. When you are in transition or feeling lost, it can be the lifeline you need to get you through to the next step — be it a half step or a giant leap. Just like our physical health, our mental health requires attention, perhaps now more than ever.

The conclusion is that ideally, every healthcare facility, employee assistance program, and learning center would have a Certified Music Therapist accessible to work with every person who seeks change and a different, desired mindset – regardless of age or circumstance.