Music can help in the mental health crisis highlighted by the pandemic

It’s okay to say you’re not okay, but it’s hard.

More Americans than ever are now receiving treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. The solutions we currently have revolve around therapy or medication and have mixed results.

For years we have neglected what could turn out to be a very effective treatment: music.

In 2020, nearly 1 in 5 people suffered from a mental illness. The pandemic has exacerbated the global mental health crisis; we now suffer from unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, especially among our young people. Efforts have rightly been made to elevate the conversation around our well-being and shine a light on an increasingly pressing issue.

How much awareness do we need before we do something about it?

We need to use awareness as a stepping stone to improving the availability of essential self-care resources for patients, especially those that focus on using music to influence mood.

Although psychotherapy and medication work for many people, they are not the only tools that can help. And they are not the best solution for everyone.

Without realizing it, we already use music in this capacity. When we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, most of us turn to our headphones for added comfort. During the pandemic, 97% of people used music in this way. The problem is the stigma towards music as a form of healing. It worked for thousands of years. Sometimes being “progressive” can mean going back to our roots.

Music has been shown to have an impressive arsenal of mental health benefits. For example, it triggers the release of serotonin – “the feel-good hormone” – which gives us a mood boost. Music can also increase our dopamine levels, which are linked to pleasure. Certain types of music can even improve our self-esteem and reduce our feelings of anxiety.

The positive effects of music are even more pronounced when applied to particularly at-risk groups. For example, instances of anxiety, depression, and lack of confidence among Chinese male prisoners were significantly reduced through music. Similarly, a study of veterans with PTSD found that using music in a targeted manner produced a double-digit reduction in symptoms of depression and improved quality of life.

At the height of the pandemic, music wasn’t just used to help those of us quarantined at home — it was used in hospitals to keep patients’ spirits up. For example, The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was regularly played on public address systems as a form of aural relief for people in intensive care units fighting for their lives. Music is even used as a form of palliative care for cancer patients.

Many of us turn to music to help us relax. But music has the potential to do so much more than that, and hospitals and rehabilitation centers need to start offering music self-reliance resources to patients diagnosed with mental illness.

This could include education and referral to organizations that help people use music in this way. As far-fetched as it sounds, we might even start “prescribing” particular songs for particular mental conditions. There are already a whole host of peculiar “mood playlists” on most major streaming platforms.

If the government starts taking this seriously and actively improves education around musical self-care, we will be able to help more people on their mental health journey.

It would arm more of us with a sonic toolkit we could turn to for defense against debilitating mental health issues.

I have no doubt that music as a form of healing is gaining ground. There is still a long way to go, but the benefits for society are immense. It is an individual awareness, then an acceptance of the idea on a larger scale. Music is the only form of healing that is everywhere. It’s in our hearts, ears, minds and souls. We don’t need to take a pill or go through therapy sessions to reap the benefits.

Bill Protzmann is the founder of San Diego-based Music Care Inc., which promotes music therapy and education.

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