Music has the capacity to influence people, while also allowing others to escape from dark places in their lives. For local musician and rapper James Colt, music and mental health go hand in hand.

“The project I’m working on right now feels like someone going through the lowest points of their life, with anxiety, depression, wanting to kill themselves, suicidal thoughts, and then rising above it as [the album] progresses,” says Colt. “So, definitely that’s something I try and tackle with my music more and more than I ever have.”

Body jamescolt1 copyAs a teenager, Calgarian James Colt began writing songs and making hip-hop music, looking up to artists like Logic & Lil Peep as inspiration. Both artists have made music about mental health. Now on the verge of releasing another album, one of Colt’s musical goals is to ensure that his work does the same. Photo courtesy of Jordan Lee.

Colt, whose real name is Colton Stankowski, explains that his love of making music and writing songs stems from personal experience as a teenager. Music gave him the opportunity to express himself rather than letting these experiences restrain him.

“Some people bottle all their emotions up with how they feel, which makes them depressed,” says Colt. “But I found that music was the perfect way to let it out.”

Musicians are part of a growing movement dedicated to healing mental health problems through music.

Mount Royal University students share their favourite musicians or songs that help them through tough times. Produced by Miguel Ibe. 

The science on how music therapy heals

The evolution of music therapy continues to change the medical treatment of individuals, according to  Jennifer Buchanan of JB Music Therapy, who has witnessed big changes during her journey as a music therapist.

“When I started as a music therapist, with the world at that point, the MRI machine hadn’t been used,” says Buchanan, who began her career 30 years ago.

“So, the concept of building brains wasn’t even on our radar that that was possible.”

Buchanan explains that decades ago, patients with brain injuries only reached a certain state of improvement. As more researchers continued analyzing music therapy, what clinicians and medical experts didn’t know was that the music itself was not only helping individuals, but also developing nervous functions as well, an idea that Buchanan became fascinated with.

“So, when this started coming out that music has the capacity to weave in and out of different neural pathways and build neural pathways and increase our learning capacity and help build areas of the brain that maybe we haven’t accessed yet, that’s become pretty exciting.”

Buchanan continues to practice music therapy, making sure that her clients receive treatment that ensures the healing and rehabilitation they need. Through musical exercises, like listening sessions or instrument improvisation, Buchanan says that signs of activity and change with each client varies but they always show improvement over time.

“For some people, it might be in the act of songwriting and actually getting their words down on paper and finding the right melody for them,” says Buchanan. “But everyone has their ‘A-ha’ moment, often in a different intervention musically.”

Music therapy advances in Alberta

Music therapy continues to shape itself within Alberta’s health care initiative. Recently, JB Music Therapy teamed up with the National Music Centre and Alberta Health Services on World Music Therapy Day to continue the expansion on a neurorehabilitation music therapy program at the Foothills Medical Hospital.

While a move like this proves to be a fundamental step for music therapy, this does not mean that the research stops. As Buchanan explains, the continuing progression of music therapy leaves more room for advancement to be made.

“The music therapists are the frontliners. They’re the clinicians but the people that are doing all the research behind music and medicine are giving us the direction of which way we can go and they’re really giving the evidence behind what we’re seeing frontline and I see there’s a lot more evidence to collect for sure.”

Music therapy: Research behind it

Music therapy, a form of clinical intervention, is used to help individuals through music exercises.

In a review by the World Journal of Psychiatry conducted in 2015, nine studies showed positive effects of music therapy on the mood of post-stroke patients. In the same review, four out of five studies on patients that were diagnosed with other neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) reported positive effects as well.

Another study by the Journal of Expert Criminology found that music therapy helped offenders. Music therapy was shown to increase their self-esteem as well as social functioning and interaction, while also reducing anxiety and depression.

Editor: Deanna Tucker | 

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