Opening up new perspectives, boosting mood, enabling people to express themselves: music, art and nature all have lasting impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Future Medley blog posts on mental health will look at art and nature as well, but here I’ll explore a little of music’s specific impact. 10th October marks World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is Mental Health For All: Greater Investment, Greater Access. Highlighting inequalities in mental health care, the theme calls for wider support – and I feel it is an opportunity to widen awareness of the diverse ways music could be harnessed to help.
Mental health covers so many distinct issues, all of which have their roots in different needs and experiences. In turn, with music (or art or nature) there’s immense scope for different responses. Firstly,there’s the question of how people engage with music. Is participatory music always the most helpful? Is singing always more beneficial than instrumental music? If so, is this because the use of language enables people to express themselves more clearly, or because singing as a skill is more viable for people than would be learning an instrument?
The Sing Up Foundation is just one organization which talks about singing specifically easing loneliness and depression, boosting confidence, improving community cohesion. The Foundation adds that singing embodies mindfulness, as it requires focus and concentration on different levels.
Then there’s the question of what music people listen to, play or sing. Some people might find unfamilar music unsettling, while others could feel liberated by the unfamiliar. Even well-known musical styles might be disturbing or jarring to some, but positive and energizing to others.
One project working to improve mental health in a specific target group is Room To Rant, run in partnership by the University of Brighton and the grassroots music charity Audioactive. Room To Rant has run for the last year, with regular rap workshops for young men aged 16-26, an age group widely known to have high levels of depression. The project enables the young men to express themselves by drawing on the power of rap, an art form which unites instrumental music with the spoken word.
Further questions surround the actual nature of music’s contribution to mental wellbeing. Coronavirus and lockdown have highlighted music’s impact as refuge or escape. Streaming companies and researchers report a surge in demand for upbeat pop classics. Earlier in lockdown the BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawney described listeners’ drift away from the deep emotion of Bach or Schubert to livelier music – Louis Armstrong, Mozart and a new March of the Day feature. This is one way we use music: to distract and to lighten mood. But another part of music’s positive impact on mental health can be the way it allows people to explore the dark times they may be enduring, to work through their trauma or depression and openly to respond. All musical styles could contribute to either. ENO is trialling Breathe, a project with coronavirus survivors, using song to assist their mental and physical recovery alike. And music therapy can allow people with extreme anxiety to express their fears non-verbally.
The more demand for mental health support spirals, the greater the need to diversify and support people in new and different ways. Music (like art and nature) could become integral, through music therapy but also through a host of other ways to engage with music and song. Awareness is growing, but needs to highlight that music can be therapy or self care, distraction and refuge or specific tool.