Rock to Recovery: Why Music Therapy is Helpful for Treating Severe Mental Illness

Music can be profoundly healing. It helps us express ourselves, learn to listen, and feel a sense of camaraderie with others. Researchers have now begun investigating the impact of music therapy on severe mental illness. This research tells us that therapeutic music production can result in extraordinary transformation even in people with deep psychiatric disturbances. The Rock to Recovery program at BrightQuest is specifically designed to provide opportunities for our clients to experience these benefits and live more stable, satisfying lives.

Every morning after breakfast, I play my piano. I play my favorite songs, the ones my hands remember, the ones I could play in my sleep. I play new songs, staring at each note on the page, practicing over and over again until the memory of them seeps into my muscles. The music I make has become an essential part of my day and my life, giving me solace and a space for expression, disrupting intrusive thoughts and replacing them with songs, clarity, quietness. When I can barely get out of bed, I can still make it to the piano. It awakens something in me. It is a kind of freedom, a kind of therapy.

There is something magical about music, our ability to create sounds that turn to melodies, rhythm, song. While music is often thought of as something in the background, its rich history, spanning time and place, suggests that it is something much more, something vital to our existence as humans. We use it to mark time, to celebrate, to grieve, and to narrate our stories. We can dance to it, and it can light up our memories and fill us with joy or sorrow through pure aesthetic experience.

While musicians and listeners alike have long recognized the healing power of music, only in recent years has it entered the arena of formal mental health treatment. As the medical community comes to recognize the need for holistic healing, music therapy is increasingly being integrated into psychiatric treatment settings. Now, research is confirming that this therapeutic form has significant benefits even if you’re living with a chronic, severe mental illness.

The Impact of Music Therapy on Severe Mental Illness

If you live with a severe mental health disorder, you may often find yourself struggling with a number of unique challenges that impair emotional stability and practical functioning in everyday life. These include difficulties in self-expression, forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and achieving emotional and behavioral regulation. While these challenges can create immediate, situation-specific hardships, they can also deeply damage your sense of self, compound chronic suffering, and diminish your ability to create positive social support networks. This is true not only during acute episodes of psychiatric disturbance, but in your overall life experience.

As Dr. Nancy A. Jackson, associate professor of music and the director of the music therapy program at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, explains,

Even when active symptoms are resolved and the individual is deemed ‘stable,’ the residual traumas of mental illness, including loneliness, grief, and stigma, persist, severely reducing quality of life and acting as destabilizers … Research literature from positive psychology suggests that addressing the issues of self-concept, self-efficacy, and quality of life is integral to successful recovery from mental illness.

Music therapy is remarkable in that it provides a way for you to address these issues by allowing you to express yourself in nonverbal ways and connect with parts of yourself which other modalities, particularly talk-based interventions, do not access. Music lets you give voice to your experiences even when you do not have words for them, or when the words you do have are too painful to say out loud.

Even in the midst of severe psychosis, music therapy can “reach in to make contact.” Simultaneously, the process of making music collaboratively lets you be heard by others and listen to others as you strive to create harmony together. As Dr. Jackson writes, “Music [lets you] find relief from invisible symptoms, including building new, meaningful relationships, finding new identity beyond mental illness and discovering enjoyment, camaraderie, and new roles in shared social experiences.” In very real and immediate ways, music therapy expands your emotional and behavioral lexicon, helps build practical skills, nourishes overall self-awareness, and opens up a path to “re-experience the wholeness of [your] humanity.”

What Research Tells Us

The benefits of music therapy aren’t just theoretical and anecdotal. As its prevalence has increased, so too has the emergence of empirical research on its efficacy. In a metareview of available studies published last year, researchers note that music therapy has been found to significantly reduce negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as “emotional indifference and insensitivity, poor social interaction, and a general lack of interest.” Symptoms such as lethargy, apathy, and cognitive disorganization also diminish.

The ability to decrease negative symptoms makes music therapy an ideal adjunct to antipsychotic treatment, which tends to primarily address positive symptoms. The authors also discovered that people with schizophrenia who engage in music therapy experience improved sociability, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and overall wellness.

Another study by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast investigated the effects of music therapy on 251 young people experiencing depression. 128 subjects received standard depression treatment while 123 received adjunctive music therapy. The results revealed that those who participated in music therapy “were able to increase their self-esteem, improve their communicative and interactive skills, and reduce depressive symptoms compared to those who received only usual care.” The study found that the effects persisted over time, producing long-term benefits for those struggling with severe depression.

“The findings are dramatic and underscore the need for music therapy to be made available as a mainstream treatment option,” says Ciara Reilly, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust. “For a long time we have relied on anecdotal evidence and small-scale research findings about how well music therapy works. Now we have robust clinical evidence to show its beneficial effects.” Similar studies have since confirmed the efficacy of music therapy in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and substance abuse disorders.

Rock to Recovery

At BrightQuest, we recognize the powerful effect music can have on people struggling with severe mental illness. Our Rock to Recovery program invites you to participate in group-based music therapy by creating a band and writing and recording songs together. Led by a group of professional musicians in recovery, this unique treatment modality gives you the opportunity to experience the benefits of music therapy in a fun, relaxed setting and work with your peers in the creative process. In doing so, you can transform your emotional state, develop vital interpersonal skills, give voice to your thoughts and feelings, and find pleasure in musical expression.

By offering cutting-edge, empirically supported therapies like music therapy, we are able to address acute symptoms of psychiatric illness while simultaneously enhancing overall wellbeing. With the power of music, you can begin a new journey into holistic healing, creating both beautiful sounds and a more joyful future.

BrightQuest offers intensive, long-term treatment for people living with severe mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse disorders. Contact us for more information about our world-class programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting recovery.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Allef Vinicius