Music Therapy in Mental Health

Our Director of Music Services, Simon Procter, writes – for mental health awareness week 2018:

Life can be tough in many ways and all of us find our mental resilience being challenged at times. For some people this results in a psychiatric diagnosis, perhaps accompanied by admission to hospital, whilst for others it is a matter of finding ways to stay afloat as happily and healthily as possible without hospitalisation or medication.

Lots of people find it helpful to listen to music that they find meaningful or which reminds them of good times or people and places they love. For others, music is a means of building and sustaining healthy social connections – e.g. by playing with friends in a band, singing in a choir or taking opportunities to learn a musical skill. But sometimes people need a bit more help than this in accessing music’s help and this is where music therapy comes in.

Mental illness impacts on people’s lives in many ways, but there is a musical dimension to mental wellbeing and hence also to mental illness. Some people’s illness causes them to come across as chaotic and disorganised. Others seem trapped in rigidity. Mental illness also affects the way people are able to communicate – for example, becoming “flat” in their affect or “hyper” and unable to regulate themselves in relation to others. Music therapists will work musically with people in these situations to offer them a sense of musical companionship when other forms of companionship may be hard to experience or endure. Furthermore, they will endeavour to offer the person experiences of themselves which go beyond the limitations of the pathology – enabling someone who is trapped in rigidity to experience the freedom of music-making, or someone who is disorganised to experience the organisation of the beat and musical structure. And of course, for someone who finds expression all but impossible, being drawn into musical expressiveness (with no words required) can be a very powerful experience.

Music therapists work in hospitals, in outpatient services and also in community organisations alongside other professionals and service users. Many people tell us how surprised they are by the meaningfulness of music making and how this can motivate them to get out of bed in the morning to get to their music therapy session, to work at things in music when work otherwise seems too daunting, and to trust their music therapist when it is really hard to trust anyone.

Mary had been living alone with long-term depression before coming to music therapy at a local community centre. There she was stunned to find herself singing – at first tentatively with her therapist and later more confidently with a larger group. Eventually she was part of working towards a performance, a process which gave her considerable confidence, and which in turn helped her to re-enter the world of work and wider social interactions.

Marcus came across music therapy when admitted to hospital during a psychotic episode. In that state, words weren’t useful, and his behaviour drove other people away, but in music he was much more capable of interaction and creativity. On leaving hospital, he took up DJing: now he’s careful to keep taking his medication in order to stay well enough to DJ.

Steve had played in bands as a teenager but stopped when first work and then addiction caused him to become socially isolated. His music therapist helped him reconnect with his songwriting: together they worked at putting his ideas together and as Steve’s confidence grew, the therapist started recording the songs and joining in on various instruments. The two of them performed the songs for other people and as Steve grew more confident, the therapist was less and less needed. Now Steve has a full and busy life with no drugs but lots of music: a big fan of Pink Floyd, he describes himself as “less comfortably numb, more meaningfully occupied”.