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Biomedical Research

How Can Music Help?: Exploring Music-Based Interventions for Adolescent Mental Health

By Fatou Yeli Kourouma

Published 10:17 PM EST, Tues May 11, 2021

Abstract

Poor teen mental health is a prevalent problem in our world, affecting nearly 1 in 5 adolescents globally. Due to widespread structural issues, most cases are not diagnosed, and many teens do not receive treatment. The negative effects of untreated mental disorders can extend long into adulthood [16]. Teens are characterized by their reverence for playing music in cars, using melodies to let go of their existential angst, and having their favorite artists connect them to larger communities. In a situation where external factors make it hard for teens to seek treatment for mental health issues, this review explores music-based interventions as a powerful tool to combat the growing teen mental health crisis.  

The Issue of Teen Mental Health

In recent years, the magnitude of poor mental health in adolescents has become increasingly clear. Globally, nearly 20% of adolescents face a mental disorder, depression and anxiety are leading causes of illness and disability, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in older teens [14][16]. 

The gravity of the situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has particularly affected teens. Since the onset of global restrictions, instances of serious teen mental health claims have doubled and feelings of anxiety and depression have risen, while perceived life satisfaction has decreased considerably [4] [9].

Despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the impact poor meal health has on the world’s youth, most cases are left untreated. In the US alone, 50% of adolescents with treatable mental disorders received no treatment in 2016 [11]. These numbers are considerably worse in lower-income countries that do not have strong mental health infrastructures [7]. The undertreatment of mental disorders in adolescence leads to adverse effects long past teenage years. Half of lifetime mental disorders begin in teenage years, demonstrating the importance of proper mental care in those formative times[8].

Barriers to Treatment 

As evidenced by the sheer amount of teens that do not receive treatment for mental health issues, there are many social and environmental barriers that make receiving treatment difficult. Major barriers teens face in receiving professional help include lack of mental health knowledge, fear of embarrassment and stigma, lack of trust of mental health professionals, and the high financial costs associated [13].  

Common symptoms of poor mental health are rarely treated as such in our society, with many touted as “moodiness”. This makes it difficult for many teens to identify their emotions as worthy of professional help. In addition, many teens don’t feel comfortable sharing their deepest problems with someone who is essentially a stranger. Confidentiality with sensitive information is imperative in a relationship with a mental health professional and a teen, but many nearly 68% of teens cited it as a reason they do not seek mental health care [13]. Fear of facing judgment due to mental health stigma in society also discourages teens, with many feeling embarrassed to even seek help. Furthermore, access to mental healthcare and funds to pay for said care is out of reach for many. In many areas around the world, there is a chronic lack of mental health care facilities which makes it nearly impossible to seek help. Another major factor is race and cultural background, with minority youth less likely to receive quality care in countries like the US and the UK [2]. All these factors render it nearly impossible for some teens to seek professional help and contribute to the rising numbers of adolescents with untreated mental disorders.  

Music as Therapy 

By activating areas of the brain associated with memory, triggering the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters like dopamine, and connecting different areas of the brain, music is considerably therapeutic [6]. Harnessing the inherent healing qualities of music, music therapy is the credentialed use of music to treat a range of mental and physical conditions like Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and depression [1]. 

This unique form of rehabilitation is markedly effective for teens and young adults with mental and emotional disorders.  Along with ongoing treatment, music therapy has been shown to increase self-esteem and lower levels of depression in teens [12]. Moreover, student refugees in North Korea and Australia who had music therapy implemented in their school said they felt they were able to manage stress and anxiety better as a result of the treatment. Music therapy has even been shown to help lower levels of depression in teens with substance abuse issues and reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in teens who experienced major trauma  [10].

Music therapy is incredibly unique as it is able to break down many barriers to treatment faced by teens. By not placing a focus on verbal communication, music therapy allows many teens to feel comfortable dealing with their mental health issues and may lessen the fear of stigma [11]. Music therapy is usually done in community and school-based contexts, which greatly increases accessibility and in many cases lowers financial strain.

Even without the use of music therapy, teens can use music to improve their mental and emotional wellness in a number of ways. By playing an instrument, singing, songwriting, and simply listening to music, teens can reap the many benefits of sound. Adolescents have cited a range of social and emotional benefits from singing and making music [3][15].  Songwriting has been shown to increase feelings of social connection and decrease perceived depression in college students  [5]. In addition, teens can use mobile apps like Humm.ly and Tunewell that feature music and exercises curated by board-certified music therapists.

Conclusion 

Levels of poor teen mental health are alarming around the world, with numbers seeming to rise. Due to a range of environmental and societal factors, many teens are unable to receive the treatment they need which leads to life-long implications. By raising accessibility, lowering fear of stigma, and limiting financial strain, music therapy interventions may be a viable solution to poor adolescent mental health.

The future of music therapy to help alleviate the mental and emotional strain many teens carry is bright. If implemented in schools, community centers, or other places where teens congregate, group music therapy sessions can be accessible for teens around the world while breaking down barriers that make mental healthcare unreachable for many. Teens around the world need help, and the solution may be closer than we think.

Fatou Yeli Kourouma, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

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[4] Fair Health. (02/03/2021). The Impact of Covid-19 on Pediatric Mental Health: A Study of Private Healthcare Claims. Fair Health. https://bit.ly/3qSt2my. Retrieved: 16/03/2021.

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[11] Mostafavi, Beata. (18/02/2019). Half of U.S. Children with Mental Health Disorders Are Not Treated. University of Michigan Health Lab. https://labblog.uofmhealth.org/rounds/half-of-us-children-mental-health-disorders-are-not-treated. Retrieved: 14/03/2021.

[12] Porter, Sam, et al. (2017). Music Therapy for Children and Adolescents with Behavioural and Emotional Problems: a Randomised Controlled Trial.  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12656. vol. 58, no. 5, 2017, pp. 586–594. Retrieved: 14/03/2021.

[13] Radez, Jerica et al. (21/01/2021).Why do children and adolescents (not) seek and access professional help for their mental health problems? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Page 183-211. Retrieved: 15/03/2021.

[14] Unicef (08/2019). Mental Health. Unicef Data .https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-health/mental-health/#_edn1 Retrieved: 14/03/2021.

[15] Welch, Graham (02/2012). The Benefits of Singing for Children. University College London Institute of Education. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273428150_The_Benefits_of_Singing_for_Children. Retrieved: 16/03/2021.

[16] World Health Organization (28/09/2020). Adolescent Mental Health.World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health. Retrieved: 14/03/2021.