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TWO Ways Music Therapy Significantly Impacts Mental Health

When Statistics Canada shared their results from the Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health 2012 it fell in line with a recommendation by the Commission’s Mental Health Strategy for Canada 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. 

Throughout my career as a music therapist I have worked in many settings – brain injury rehab, dementia care, palliative care, with children with cognitive disabilities, and with those facing high levels of stress. Although on the surface all of these populations are uniquely different, there is something that connects each of them. Regardless of age, ability, affluence or current situation, a person’s mental health matters in how well they feel about themselves and others.  There is also strong evidence that our state of mind, our mindset, greatly influences our health.

While every music therapy session will be different and there is no one prescription, music therapists address many mental health goals, including:

• decrease stress and/or anxiety

• develop focus and productivity skills

• participate in an inclusive social environment 

• improve capacity for learning and attention

• boost confidence and feelings of self-worth

Here are two research-backed reasons I feel music therapy is a viable consideration for mental health and supporting a positive mindset:

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 published in Nature in 2014 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 produces responses from the amygdala, the area of the brain that modulates emotional networks, and the hippocampus, which centres on the emotions released during bonding and attachments.

What this confirms is that the brain’s response to music isn’t just embedded in the here and now; it’s also tuned into the past and enmeshed in our relationships. We know from many previous blogs that music has the capacity to trigger emotions and anchor feelings.  The music therapist uses all this information when planning treatment for how best to use music in each session, in order to reach the patient’s desired goals. 

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

Using the patient’s preferences and their specific goals, music therapists incorporate a variety of tempos, tones, rhythms, melodies and lyrics that will support the client’s desired mood state.

For example, 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. The research found that music therapy added to treatment as usual (TAU) seems to improve depressive symptoms compared with TAU alone.

The conclusion for me is that ideally, every healthcare facility, employee assistance program, and learning centre would have a certified music therapist accessible to work with every person who seeks change and a different, desired mindset – regardless of age.