Mental and behavioral health settings have been some of my most challenging (but also most rewarding) experiences. Everyone has such a strong connection to their music, and it provides a solid foundation for us to work off of. Music allows us to share experiences and remember that we are not alone. These are some general areas that I’ve found music therapy to be especially beneficial for those with a mental illness and/or a substance use disorder:
Music sparks an emotional response in us. We could go into the research about why this happens but honestly, there’s something magical about it that I can’t quite verbalize. Music allows us to feel and express ourselves without words, which is why this is so valuable in processing. Processing and expressing our emotions is terrifying. Couple that with being in a group setting surrounded by people you may not trust and this can be a recipe for disaster. I often ask group members to share a song that has a lot of meaning to them. This leads to a great discussion about the content of the song, and how this relates to their experiences. Asking them what the artist is thinking and feeling can be a non-threatening way of discussing what’s actually going on with them. Sharing songs can become extremely personal without forcing them to verbalize their own thoughts and feelings.
Building Healthy Relationships with Self and Others
Music brings people together while providing a safe structure for them to explore themselves and how they relate to others. Creating music together can be a reflection of how we interact, and it can bring to the forefront things we may not be aware of. Sharing in a common experience (music-making) reminds us of how we are also sharing in a common experience in life, and we may not be as different as we think we are. Oftentimes I will record a music-making experience and ask the group to comment on what they hear afterward. What sticks out to you? What do you wish you heard more of? What are some things that you feel went well? We have things to learn even when the jams seem to “fall apart”. What do you think happened? What do you need to be more supported next time? How can we support each other?
To me, empowerment is one of the most important qualities we should strive for in a therapeutic relationship. How are we supposed to expect our clients to feel motivated and excited about their journey if they don’t feel they can handle life on their own? As a therapist, I feel that it’s my duty to be present with them and remember that we’re working towards something together; they are the experts on their experiences. Music therapy’s essence is empowering: by creating, listening to, discussing, and sharing music together, we are focusing on their strengths and the resources they have available to themselves rather than the process of “being cured”. Providing success-oriented activities and autonomy gives us the opportunity to be the best we can be.
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