Music Therapy and the Art of Whistling While You Work

When considering treatment for severe mental illness, particularly illnesses involving psychosis such as Bipolar DisorderSchizophrenia, and Schizoaffective Disorder, music therapy and drum circles usually aren’t the first thing to come to mind. In fact, the first image to come to mind may be a somewhat bleak institution with patients in hospital gowns wandering blank-faced through the halls. Fortunately, current treatment for severe mental illness has made great progress since the writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and nowhere has this become more evident to me than in my work facilitating the Music Group at Hanbleceya.

In fact, the first image to come to mind may be a somewhat bleak institution with patients in hospital gowns wandering blank-faced through the halls. Fortunately, current treatment for severe mental illness has made great progress since the writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and nowhere has this become more evident to me than in my work facilitating the Music Group at Hanbleceya.

Music therapy can be much more fun and enjoyable than simple enforced medication compliance and talk therapy. Aside from being enjoyable, studies have shown that music therapy can have incredible therapeutic impact in its own right. A review of studies on music therapy for severely mentally ill inpatients revealed that regular music therapy groups led to an increase in global functioning, mental state, social functioning, and general functioning (Gold, Heldal, Dahle, and Wigram, 2005). The study showed that clients’ moods improved, social interaction improved, and even negative symptoms (such as lack of motivation or inability to experience pleasure), which typically are not helped by medication, improved.

You might be curious as to how music therapy works. Music therapy groups and drum circles help clients learn to listen to their own beat, listen to the beats of the other group members, and find a way to play their own part within a cohesive whole. This skill of being able to track one’s own actions as well as the actions of others is invaluable for those with Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, or Schizoaffective Disorder who are frequently so wrapped up in their own mental process (whether that involves hallucinations or rapid flight-of-ideas) that they are unable to recognize what is happening with those around them. The skill of learning to cooperate as part of a group is also important for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, who are more comfortable existing in a state of relational chaos than in harmonizing with a group.

Creating music with music therapy also offers a healthy, safe way to express thoughts and emotions for those who may struggle to find the right words. A common symptom in Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizoaffective Disorder is disorganized thinking. Clients with disorganized thinking styles may struggle to explain their thoughts and emotions verbally, but they are often able to express them musically. Clients with personality disorders often have an ingrained pattern of expressing thoughts or feelings ineffectively with their words (or even with dangerous or unhealthy behaviors), but they can break this pattern and express themselves in a different way using music.

Music therapy can also foster increased confidence. I have personally observed this particular benefit in Hanbleceya’s music group time and again. Clients come in and stare, often in horror, at the pile of percussive instruments in the middle of the room. They hesitantly pick some instrument and stare at it helplessly, believing that they are in no way capable of using it to create music. But once the group begins and everyone starts to play, clients realize that not only are they using the musical instrument to make music, but the music actually sounds good! Even clients with anxiety disorders, by the end of the group, are sitting up straight in the circle with a smile on their face.

The biggest proof in my personal experience that music therapy can be helpful for the severely mentally ill comes from the group’s ending activity, dubbed the “Celebration Circle.” For the activity, group members all sit in a circle and start a drum roll. One at a time, in no specified order, clients jump into the middle of the circle and signal for the drum roll to stop. Once the drum roll ceases, the client shares something that he/she is celebrating that day. As a therapist on Hanbleceya’s treatment team, I am privy to much of what goes on in the various therapy groups and sessions that all of the clients have each day. I can attest that clients most often talk about the things that they are struggling with or the emotional pains that they are experiencing. The work of therapy is arduous and often unpleasant. However, at the end of an hour of music therapy, EVERY client is celebrating. They are all able to name a strength or a victory without needing to search their minds for a long time in order to remember something. In that way, I have been lucky enough to see that music is indeed the food of not only love, but success, strength, and celebration.

American Music Therapy Association. (2008). Music therapy in mental health: Evidence-based practice support. In American Music Therapy Association. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/bib_psychopathology.pdf

Gold, C., Heldal, T. O., Dahle, T., & Wigram, T. (2005). Music therapy for schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like illnesses. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3.

Castle Purvis, T. (2007). Music Therapy in Schizophrenia. In Sound Effects. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://www.soundeffects.wlu.ca/soundeffects/researchlibrary/TonyaCastle.pdf