Connecting the Dots: Music and Mental Health
Written by John Gerdy

According to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, the suicide rate among U.S. youth, ages 10 – 17 increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. And according to a separate study, the CDC found that among young girls, ages 15 to 19, the suicide rate doubled from 2007 to 2015, its highest point in 40 years. The suicide rate for boys increased by 30 percent during the same time period.


While these numbers are alarming, they are not terribly surprising as there are many prevalent and, apparently, growing contributing factors leading to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. These include bullying, academic pressure, family problems and social media harassment. In response to this public health crisis, schools are being challenged to implement suicide prevention policies and to develop strategies, guidelines and resources to address the issue.


How about this for another strategy and resource? Music and the Arts!


From treating depression and anxiety disorders to managing stress to helping veterans fight the effects of PTSD to aiding in the treatment of various mental disorders, the healing potential of music relating to psychological issues and problems is enormous. One of music’s greatest impacts is how it can elevate an individual’s mood resulting in a more positive outlook, increasing self-esteem. Music is often linked to moods and thus can make individuals feel a variety of emotions from happy, calm, energetic or relaxed.  As a result, its potential as it applies to psychological impact is virtually unlimited. Music therapy can also be instrumental in recovery programs for substance abuse disorders as it can help individuals deal with the emotional problems associated with such disorders.


Dr. Raymond Bahr, puts it this way, “Half an hour of music produces the same effect as ten milligrams of valium.”


And leave it to musician Bob Marley to highlight this benefit with one of his simple, straightforward universal truths, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”


Another powerful benefit of music is that involvement in music groups can create a sense of “belonging” and community. Clearly, a major contributing factor to mental health issues and suicide is that the individual feels alone or like an “outsider”, which can contribute to feelings of depression.


Daniel Pink, in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” cites the work of Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, social psychologists who in 1995 developed the “belongingness hypothesis”.  This is the notion that humans are always searching to feel a sense of belonging to a group in hopes of developing meaningful relationships with others. As a vehicle to provide opportunities to belong and connect with others there may be no better activity than group or choral singing. People who sing in a group report far higher well-being than those who do not or those who sing solo. While singing can lead to feelings of vulnerability (Is my voice good enough?), it also generates feelings of trust and togetherness in that everyone in the group is taking that risk regarding vulnerability together. In short, group singing builds community. Group drumming also offers the same benefits.


While efforts to encourage schools to develop various suicide prevention programs are certainly laudable, the question is why do we continue to cut programs in our schools that have proven effective in addressing the various contributing factors to suicide? When school funding shortfalls develop, why do we continue to reduce or eliminate music and arts programs? These are “ready-made” programs for treating depression and isolation.


So let’s connect the dots.


We have a rise in depression, alienation, and suicide rates for teens.


As a result, schools are facing increased pressure to develop programs and initiatives to address these issues.


We know of a known entity (music and the arts) that research tells us is effective in addressing various causes and symptoms that contribute to depression and suicide.


Yet we continue to reduce or eliminate school programs in music and the arts.


What is wrong with this picture?


Is it possible that the decline in exposure to music and arts programs in our schools has contributed in any way to the rise in depression, alienation, and suicide rates in youth? There is no way to know this for certain, as there is little, if any, research directly related to this potential relationship. That said, it sure seems like a logical series of factors, indicators, and impacts.


That being the case, perhaps a first step might be to simply connect the dots and begin to reconsider our investment in school music and arts programs as it applies to our educational and public health needs and priorities.