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Music Therapy for Addiction and Mental Health

You've probably had the experience of hearing a piece of music that changed your mood. Perhaps you've even done some singing or playing an instrument, both activities that many people find relaxing and energizing. So it makes intuitive sense that music would be a positive influence for people struggling with mental illness or addiction.

The American Music Therapy Association cites evidence documenting positive outcomes in using music to help people with mental illness connect with and express their emotions. Treatment modalities may include performing, listening, and discussing music in groups. Positive outcomes of music therapy experiences can include improved coping skills, social interaction, and a heightened sense of control. Studies have found that people with substance use disorder can benefit from music as an aid to reducing anxiety, decreasing impulsive behavior, and experiencing positive emotions without using a substance.

It's important to note that therapeutic use of music is different from simply listening for entertainment. No one piece or genre of music will have the same effect on every patient, so music therapists must work to connect with the sounds that have meaning for each individual patient. In particular, music therapy has been found effective in healing from trauma.

Formal interventions, led by a music therapist, may include:

  • Lyric analysis: With the song as a focus rather than the individual's feelings, therapist and client may be able to reach more insights into emotions and experiences.
  • Improvisation: Some people may be less comfortable sitting and talking with a therapist. Making sounds, free of judgments around which ones are "better" or "right," can itself be cathartic, and can also help a client connect sounds with feelings.
  • Active listening: Some sessions can involve moving to music, from foot-tapping or swaying to improvised free dance. Others can use a series of musical pieces to connect with the client's current mood and then gradually guide the mood toward a more desired state.
  • Songwriting: Creating lyrics and sounds that work together to express a thought or feeling can be a great motivator, providing a client with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

No matter what form it takes, the power of music is undeniable. The NAMI Web site offers a story by Kathryn Rose Wood, a music therapist who used songwriting to help heal from the trauma of her brother's suicide. "It was writing that song that made me realize I couldn't 'fix' myself alone. I sought out therapy, grief support, spiritual counseling and healthy peer systems."