As young as five years old, I would climb our giant piano bench to drown the stifling silence, devouring music like medicine. Back then, I had no concept of music as formal therapy or that I would face a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. But playing the Wurlitzer released a pressure valve in me that nothing else did.
Studies indicate that playing music, particularly with others, releases natural endorphins to reduce anxiety and depression and creates a sense of community.
I spent years composing one song, a droning and repetitive tune: “Where’s the Love?” The only other lyrics: “For me?”
Music therapy studies show that writing even sappy lyrics can be therapeutic, by creating “the opportunity for individuals with a mental health condition to express moods, thoughts and emotions.”
In high school, I contracted mono and spent three weeks isolated at home. But the syncopated chords of “Amazing Grace” melted a space open in my heart by turning off my chronic stress response—which, left unchecked, can cause various emotional issues, like depression and anger.
When I was thirty, my parents downsized in preparation for a move to Norway; the only thing I wanted was the Wurlitzer—my great-grandmother’s piano. That piano links my family’s history, including our therapeutic heritage.
During the Depression, my Grandma Lee taught lessons on the Wurlitzer, played for her church, and even tickled the ivories at silent movies, accompanied by my great-grandfather on the violin. No one in the family could name all the instruments Grandpa Lee taught himself to play.
As a child, I hid around corners eavesdropping on whispered stories about how Grandpa Lee blew his whole paycheck on yo-yos or candy instead of food or rent. His “hallucinations” led to an eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia and a course of electroshock therapy. I pieced the puzzle together bit by bit, but not soon enough to save my own mental health.
Despite that life of chaos, my Granny—Grandpa Lee’s daughter—shared that church music always made her feel calm. And my mother, who suffers deep bouts of depression and mania, has always said she found “comfort in the music” of church. Music therapy research shows that listening to music can provide people with relaxation or put them in meditative states.
Since my twenties, my own ever-growing tendency to anxiety and depression led doctors to prescribe various antidepressants, specifically SSRIs and anti-anxiety medications. At thirty-five, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Eventually, one therapist asked, “Has anyone ever suggested the possibility that perhaps your great-grandfather had bipolar disorder—or manic-depressive disorder, as it used to be called—instead of schizophrenia?”
Historically, numerous bipolar patients—particularly those who experienced hallucinations—received incorrect diagnoses of schizophrenia. My great-grandfather’s probable misdiagnosis had likely exacerbated my inheritable condition; with a better medical history, I could have avoided triggering drugs for bipolar disorder, like SSRIs.
But before the full-blown symptoms, misdiagnoses, and drugs, for the first part of my life, I—like my great-grandfather—used music as my medicine. Even counseling could not have replaced the creative outlet, self-esteem, and ability to let out my innermost thoughts that I gained through writing those lyrics—like a not-so-secret-code.
Even if my grandfather did have schizophrenia, music could have been helpful to him. The goal of music therapy for patients suffering from ADHD, depressions, schizophrenia, mood disorders, or PTSD is “to approach issues that may not be addressed using words alone.”
We can all enjoy the health benefits of music, whether we suffer from mental illness or not. The sensation that music can soothe our psyches is no illusion:
- While some studies suggest that the positive effects of music on mental illness require its performance, other sources point to the benefits drawn from simply listening.
- Those of us who do choose to make music don’t need to be musical geniuses like my great-grandfather to reap therapeutic benefits. Sign up for music lessons or bang on your kids’ toy instruments.
- According to Dr. Barry Bittman, medical director of Meadville Medical Center’s Mind-Body Wellness Center, in Meadville, PA, simply “playing an hour a week for six weeks can lower your stress response.”
- Music lessons, playing music with others, and even attending group musical events can reduce our sense of isolation because they produce positive feelings shared among many people simultaneously that “generate a sense of community and bonding.”
Music plays a part in all of our lives. And music is always there for us—waiting to be heard or made, with family, friends, or on our own.