The Role of Music in Mental Health Matters

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

Music has always been something safe for people to get lost in, as Maya Angelou says above. Music has turned into more than just something you play in the background but rather moved into the forefront as a tool to not only address mental health issues but to cope with them as well.

Over the past few decades the discourse on mental health and how it affects individuals has opened up completely, and our understanding of things like depression or anxiety has increased to the point where we have ways to help. There’s still a long way to go, particularly in battling the stigma around mental health issues in society, but music even helps to break down those barriers too. So many people in this day and age use music as a coping mechanism, something to help them get through hard times, or even just get through the day.  

Music has always had a role in people’s wellbeing, going back hundreds of years. Songs often have a knack of speaking to us emotionally; whether that’s making us cry, boosting us up or just passing the time. Soothing tempos and melodies often help calm you down and then motivational lyrics and big beats bring you up when you need it. Music provides a wonderful world you can get lost in, as well as something to hold onto when times are tough. It can also trigger specific emotions and memories, like songs that remind you of your relationship or even your favourite football team. 

There are a lot of scientific studies and research to back this up too, proving it’s not just something people say. One such study has found that listening to music releases dopamine (the feel-good chemical) in the brain, especially when you’re listening to music that you like. Another found that music can help reduce anxiety and stress levels by up to 65%. There is even research to suggest that music can have a physical impact as well as a mental one, with studies showing it slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure – in turn, have a mental effect and helping to reduce stress. This shows that music actually makes a difference, and it may be something you want to try out next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Spotify and other music platforms have a lot of “mood” playlists, as well as a lot of chill music mixes ready to press play on YouTube.

Despite music being such a great tool for mental health, many of the people who make music often suffer from mental health problems themselves. There is a lot of pressure and toxicity in the industry, with it being incredibly competitive and difficult to achieve success. Artists, both mainstream and the more obscure, frequently speak out about their own issues, with a 2019 study showing that up to 80% of musicians suffer from stress, anxiety or depression.

The life of a musician is often one contrary to the norm; lots of late nights, travelling and touring away from family and friends, as well as home and a sense of stability. They often receive a lot of critique and negative comments; from critics as well as online trolls, and the need to maintain a public image leads to a melting pot of negativity that makes musicians and those in the industry likely to have some kind of mental health problem. While playing and creating music can be seen as a therapy, sometimes the act of writing a song isn’t enough for those wrapped up in bad feelings.

An example of this can be seen in Ariana Grande, who has often been very vocal about her struggles, and has even publicly taken a break from music to focus on her mental health. Though she has said that she has been in therapy for over a decade, in the last few years she has had to face several traumatic events, being the death of her ex-boyfriend as well as the Manchester Arena terrorist attack that happened at one of her concerts in 2017. Speaking of the latter, Grande talked specifically about the physical symptoms she experienced due to the PTSD of the event, telling Elle she had “really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe.” Grande even uses her mental health as inspiration for her songs. Get Well Soon was influenced by the state of her anxiety in the aftermath of the Manchester attack, and she offers it as a “musical hug” to those going through difficult times. Similarly, her song Breathin’ was also inspired by anxiety and “feeling like you can’t get a full breath” during panic attacks. 

Zayn Malik is another celebrity who has spoken about his anxiety, posting on Instagram in 2016 after having to cancel a performance due to his anxiety. Though suffering seriously from anxiety in the past – saying his mum had to drag him out of bed for his X-Factor audition – he told fans that the event caused him to have the worst anxiety of his career. Malik has always been very vocal about his anxiety, wanting to be transparent to his fans about the reasons behind cancelling performances. Saying “Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of.” 

The Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson has also spoken publicly with her struggles with her documentary “Odd One Out” released earlier this year. In this documentary she talks very candidly about the cruel treatment she received via online trolls after appearing on X Factor in 2011, highlighting a slightly different way artists can have mental health issues from being in the spotlight. The hate she received “chipped away at her self-esteem”, leading to depression, eating disorders and eventually a suicide attempt. The cyber bullying she has experienced and the effects that have been a long road for Nelson, but she has since said she feels “a lot mentally stronger and happier”, and is using her platform to help spread awareness of mental health issues and how social media can affect people. 

These are only some examples of artists who struggle with mental health, and/or take inspiration from it. Demi Lovato, Matty Healy, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and so many others have all suffered and been vocal about their struggles. There’s an outdated idea that to be successful, one has to suffer for their art, which is, of course, a very damaging idea that is pretty much wrong, (there is no link between creativity and mental illness” says Dr R. Keith Sawyer”). Thankfully, many artists and individuals are challenging this, and are becoming more and more vocal with their struggles, opening up a discourse and helping to remove the stigma around mental health, changing things for the better.

Speaking on a more personal note, I myself often use music as a coping mechanism for my anxiety. While I don’t suffer as much or as badly as I used to when it comes to my mental health, music was and still is a great outlet and tool that allows me to cope and process my emotions. When I am having a particularly bad mental health day, I find the way that works best for me to get out of it is to let myself feel the emotions. If I’m sad, I let myself be sad. If I’m angry, I let myself be angry. For me, repressing emotions just doesn’t work, and if I try to hold things in to appear “normal”, I find I just feel worse for longer.

To feel these emotions, I find music to be incredibly helpful. Ever listened to sad love songs after a breakup? It’s kind of the same thing. Allowing myself to experience the emotions I have inside me makes it easier to get out of that mood, and listening to that kind of music helps me process quicker, feel quicker and ultimately feel better quicker, even if it does sound a bit contradictory to let myself wallow in misery for a bit. 

Another way I have used music to feel better is singing. I am a big musical theatre fan, but in general, I’ve been singing for my whole life, in choirs or on my own, and there is nothing more cathartic to me than screaming out a song whenever I feel a little bit down. Honestly, be it in the shower, doing the washing up, or even waiting for the tram, I’m almost always singing and I find nothing better than a quick karaoke session to quell the blues. I even have the science to back this up, as studies have shown singing causes your brain to release endorphins which lower stress and anxiety levels, giving you a positive feeling and an energy boost.

Music is a wonderful thing. I’m sure so many people, including myself, would struggle to go on with their daily life without their own personal playlist in the background. Without music, the world would be just a little darker, and we’re lucky to have such a great thing in such a way that there is something for everyone to enjoy. “Music speaks when words fail” and for a lot of people trying to deal with their own mental health, truer words could never be spoken.

Words: Polly Jean Harrison

Photo source: South Staffordshire Network for Mental Health

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