More than just a distraction: The link between music and mental health

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Do you think art/music could be a viable treatment in addition to basic care for those with mental illnesses?

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The biting early morning cold dissipated as I passed through the doors of the Caltrain. Searching for a vacant seat, my eyes scanned over the rows upon rows of heads. As I was sitting down, a man across the aisle did as well. He takes a deep inhale while flipping open his wireless earbuds case and places them in his ears, just like the hundreds of other people already had. 

And with an exhale and a quick tap on the screen, he became a changed person. His once tense shoulders relaxed and allowed his upper back to sink into the train seat, and the rest of his body followed. People on the streets of San Francisco were no different. Virtually every single one of them had a pair of earbuds in. Some have an evident pep in their step, while others calmly stride with purpose.

Music plays a key role in nearly everybody’s lives. With the advent of streaming services, it is more accessible now than ever before, and it can be used to change or enhance one’s mood. It could also prove to be a useful, albeit unconventional, treatment for those suffering from mental illnesses.

After multiple interviews, the link between music and improved mental health became apparent through both personal accounts and scientific studies. 

In a universe of uncertainty and mystery, art is a beacon of hope and purpose.”

During difficult times in his life, Eugene Halim, who hails from Jakarta, Indonesia, said, “So, during those periods, I would normally listen to jazz music.” He further explains, “[Jazz music] is slow and the music really has a calming effect on me.” 

Jessica Fathers, who lives in Portola Valley, California, also described the way music helps her cope, 

“…[T]here was something really bad going on in my life like personally, and I joined chamber singers, like the choir at my school,” she said. “It was so nice just because intellectually it helped me… expand my horizons, and like I learned a lot of new things about music and I can actually dissect music I listen to instead of just hearing sounds.” 

This new knowledge helped improve her mood. 

“[I]t’s kinda like a reassurance, like it’s kinda weird but it makes me feel better about myself because… there’s not a lot of things that I’m super good at, but I feel like I know a lot about music and like knowing what I’m listening to is kinda helpful for me,” Fathers said. 

These accounts are not just random and unproven. In fact, Fathers was partially right when she said, “…when you learn music it’s proven like something science-y that intellectually you grow.” Many studies have shown that music relieves the symptoms of various mental illnesses. 

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry details, “Participants receiving music therapy plus standard care showed greater improvement than those receiving standard care only in depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms and general functioning at 3-month follow-up.” 

The study’s outcome was measured using the MADRS scale, which is a scale “…of 10 items and the total score can vary from 0 to 60.” In addition, the results of the study concluded that the severity of the subjects’ schizophrenia symptoms were much reduced much more “…in patients receiving music therapy and standard care compared to… patients just receiving standard care.” 

Music and art in general are key aspects to human nature. We gravitate towards others’ pieces of art because they are extensions of artists’ emotions, which are essentially records of the occurrences in their lives. 

The artist can take whatever emotions they have and release them, preventing them from bottling up when other methods of release, such as talking to family and/or close friends, fail to work or even be an option. When the audience responds positively to an artist’s work, they essentially affirm that those emotions are entirely acceptable. 

For the audience, the very choice of what to listen to or what piece of art to admire is a release in and of itself, as they are expressing a desire to have a different emotion or to strengthen a current one. Artistic creation is an essential part of the human nature. We as humans want to leave some sort of positive mark on the world.