‘Music lifted me through my darkest days’

Research has proven a link between music and positive mental health.

Music is a powerful form of expression: whether playing or listening to it, the tone, volume, instrument and genre can have a profound effect on how we feel.

We have all felt melancholy when hearing a certain piece of music, or uplifted and revived simply by hearing the sounds of an upbeat tune, so it makes sense that music is used as a form of treatment or therapy for people suffering with mental health issues.

Dr Barbara Dooley, the director of research at Headstrong, a charity that supports young people with mental health issues, says research has proven a link between music and positive mental health.

"A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that individuals who received music therapy in addition to their standard care had significantly reduced levels of depression and anxiety compared to those who received only standard care," she says.


“Listening to music can have a relaxing effect on our minds and bodies by slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and decreasing levels of cortisol, our stress hormone.”

In the My World Survey by Dooley and Fitzgerald in 2012, 14,500 people in Ireland between the ages of 12 and 25 said listening to or playing music was one of their top three preferred strategies for coping when times are tough, "so this points to the value of music in dealing with life's ups and downs", says Dooley.

All-consuming schizophrenia

Ruth has suffered with schizophrenia since 1985. A keen musician, she plays the flute, recorder and guitar. She feels that both playing and listening to music were key to helping her to recover from the times when her illness seemed all-consuming.

“I had an office job in London in the 1980s and during that time I had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I came back to Ireland and was admitted to hospital for six weeks and used to listen to my Walkman constantly to escape what was going on around me.

“I was allowed to bring my flute in so I practised every day in a spare room and played to some of the other patients.

“I also wrote some songs while I was in there and would sit out in the corridor with the others, to whom I had taught the words, and sing.

"I remember one of the songs was called Keep Taking the Tablets, which was a bit of light relief from it all."

The 52-year-old lives in Dublin and believes her ability to play music was vital when she was at her lowest ebb.

“Music lifted me through my darkest days,” she says. “It gave me something to put my energy into and definitely helped to improve my mental health, always bringing me from the negative to the positive.

“Even when I didn’t feel able to play an instrument, just listening to the right music helped to take me from feeling depressed to upbeat. I have had hard times over the years but I am much better today and would definitely attribute much of my recovery to my love of music.”

Health and well

being Ann Keary is a lecturer at the conservatory of music and drama in DIT. As a piano teacher and a musician, she has seen first- hand how music can help to improve health and well


“Playing and listening to music are always going to be positive,” she says. “I see the benefits every day with my students. Firstly there is the sense of achievement and the morale boost from producing something wonderful.

“But it also affects people on many other levels as music has a positive impact on the whole self on a spiritual, creational, emotional, intellectual, aural, kinetic and even physical level.

“So I would say that regardless of what instrument people play or what type of music it is, there is something positive in it for everyone.”

Peadar O’Loughlin, a violin maker, lives in Co Clare. He has also suffered from mental health issues and remembers feeling anxious from a very young age. His father died almost two decades ago and he believes that his death triggered a depression that lasted many years.

“At an early age I had episodes of terror and anxiety and the instinct to escape from it all,” he says, “but the first event as an adult was getting over my father’s death in 1992.

“I still remember the 4am phone call; it’s still hard to define but the predominant feeling was numbness.

“A few years later, I suspected depression. I was working in Switzerland at the time and mentioned it to someone I trusted, but they rubbished it. So it wasn’t until I returned to Ireland in 2000 that old triggers presented themselves again, as well as new and unexpected obstacles.”

Difficult period

O’Loughlin’s symptoms were terror, anxiety, anger and frustration but he did not seek help until 2002; he went first to a psychiatrist, who then referred him to a psychotherapist. Through nine years of toing and froing between medical experts, O’Loughlin, who is 49, believes that his craft, and playing and listening to music, helped him through that difficult period.

“I sometimes wonder if my craft saved my life because no one close to me was familiar with it or knew anything about it, so they weren’t in a position to judge: at last, I had freedom, identity, passion and a sense of destiny,” he says.

“Music in any genre can be a great healer. Of course musical taste and preference are very personal. For me, obviously it’s the sound of bowed, stringed instruments and also the trained human voice. That purity and resonance can stop me in my tracks.

"I truly believe music has the capacity to soothe and transform grief and loneliness, to evoke joy or a sense of deep and quiet wellbeing. I found great comfort in one particular vocal piece, The Holy Love by Georgi Sviridov sung by Doros, a Russian male septet. Also, the Vasks violin concerto and works by Kurtak and Chausson can literally move the soul. I feel the silence between the notes is as important as the music itself."

Thanks to his involvement in a Wrap (wellness recovery action plan) programme, he is well on the road to recovery and will be showcasing his work at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which runs from June 27th to July 5th.

Tremendous support

“Recovery is not about having to change myself into some all-singing, all-dancing, all-smiling version of myself that society often appears to demand for ‘success’,” he says. “Through the Wrap programme and the great work of Pieta House, I learned to accept myself as I am in any given moment and, because of the tremendous support I received, I felt drawn to give back.

“Initially I thought about pursuing a role in the mental health field, but I have come to realise that I have been contributing a sense of wellbeing, for myself and others, through my instruments all along.

“I have learned to see my oversensitivity as a great gift rather than as a personality disorder and where better can I express that only by infusing it into sound through beautiful pieces of spruce and maple?”

See headstrong.ie; wrapireland.ie; pieta.ie; conservatory.dit.ie; westcorkmusic.ie