Q&A: Music Therapy and Mental Health

Recently, I met a music therapist, Germaine Yong, specialising in helping folks with mental health issues and interviewed her for this post.

For the uninitiated, music therapy is defined by the American Music Therapy Association as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

Well, that was quite a mouthful wasn’t it? I promise you that the interview will be a much easier read.

Here goes!

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I provide music therapy and work mainly with adults in their middle age and elderly. I have spent the past 5 years with the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

2. How does music therapy work in a nutshell?

It generally aims to improve one’s well being, quality of life and health using music as a medium.

3. When did you start becoming interested in music therapy?

I used to volunteer at Metta School but noticed that many clients didn’t respond to traditional methods of intervention. One day, I checked out a music therapy conference in Brisbane and went to talk to a music therapist. There, I learnt that music therapy covers a wide range of conditions, literally from cradle to grave; newborns born premature can have music therapy administered to them and hospice patients nearing the end of their lives can also enjoy the benefits of music therapy. I felt very excited about the possibilities of music therapy and decided to pursue formal certification.

4. Where did you receive your training from?

I studied at Western Sydney University for 2 years before obtaining my Masters in Music Therapy.

5. How does music therapy help those with mental health issues?

I will first assess several aspects of a patient before determining a suitable course of treatment. Some things I’d look out for include their affect, any instruments they play (*Note: The ability to play an instrument is not necessary to qualify for therapy) among other things.

Based on the assessment, I will then either assign them to individual or group therapy with each session lasting around 45 minutes to 1 hour.

The goals could be regulating emotions through music if the patient has bipolar disorder, elevating one’s mood if the person suffers from depression, or helping them deal with anxiety

6. Could you provide some examples of people who have benefitted from music therapy?

Some clients don’t fit into traditional forms of therapy such as talk therapy. They might do very well in music therapy, especially those who are not vocal who might find it hard to express their feelings in words.

Music gives them the opportunity to be creative. There is often a connection felt between music and the client. When a piece of music is played to them, they would respond by playing something in return and this process often helps them to reflect their feelings.

Some have fond memories of music from when they were younger. Music gives them a safe feeling and a chance to be who they are. When they play music, they feel like they are not being judged and that there are no expectations of them. This is especially helpful for those with low self-esteem. Music therapy helps them regain their self-confidence.

Rubber Band is a band that I formed 4 years ago. It is formed by some clients who have schizophrenia and others with mood disorders. We do public performances and did an item at the 2015 Music Therapy Day at the Esplanade. Performances such as these help give my clients confidence and also to dispel stigma associated with mental disorders. We hope to give others in recovery hope. Using music, we inspire them not to give up.

7. Is music therapy coupled with other methods of treatment (psychiatric medication / talk therapy with a psychologist) or used alone?

It is most effective when used with other treatment approaches.

8. Where can people access such services in Singapore?

My clients are mainly from SAMH. Those interested can call up SAMH at 6283 1576 to inquire for more details.

9. And how much would that cost?

You can join the SAMH for a very low annual fee of $5 and access a wide range of activities including music therapy.

10. You mentioned using music therapy to help patients deal with anxiety. This seems to be increasingly common these days. Could you tell our readers how you help them with their anxiety?

I do vocal toning exercises with them to help them release their anxiety. This is a method I learnt from my post-graduate course in Austin’s vocal psychotherapy developed to help patients suffering from trauma and abuse.

Basically, we articulate and drag the vowels, “A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, “U” and let the voice from within come out naturally. The sound vibrations generated helps one feel calmer and helps one be more in the moment.

Sometimes we can feel anxious for no reason. This exercise will prove helpful. We can do it either lying down or sitting. You will find yourself feel more in touch with the self.

11. Tell us a bit more about one thing you do with your clients that the average person can apply in their daily lives.

I ask my clients to make a personal playlist. In a crisis, a playlist can help sustain someone in difficult period of time before one meets with his/her psychiatrist/psychologist/counsellor.

You can assess your own playlist. What songs uplift you when you’re down? What songs resonate with you? 

12. But wouldn’t sad songs bring one deeper into the abyss of depression and dampen one’s mood even further?

On the contrary, even sad songs can uplift. The important thing is to find songs that speak to you.

When you feel low or totally disconnected from life, listening to a pre-prepared playlist can really comfort.

We need to equip ourselves. Even psychologists use tools to help their patients when they are down. It could be exercise, it could be reading, you have to discover what works for you. A personal playlist is just another tool that one can pull out to use in a crisis.

13. Has research been done to prove the effectiveness of music therapy as a form of treatment for those with mental health conditions?

Yes. For a jargon-free introduction to research on music therapy, check out the Music Therapy Research Blog (http://www.musictherapyresearchblog.com/).

For the scholarly interested in relevant research papers relating to how music therapy helps those with schizophrenia and depression, you can click on the following links down below:

Music therapy for people with schizophrenia and schizophrenia-like disorders. Mössler, K, Chen X, Heldal TO, Gold C.The Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 12. 2011, Dec 7. (http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/ResourceFinder/Music-therapy-for-people-with-schizophrenia.pdf)

Individual music therapy for depression: randomised controlled trial. Jaakko Erkkilä, Marko Punkanen, Jörg Fachner, Esa Ala-Ruona, Inga Pöntiö, Mari Tervaniemi, Mauno Vanhala, Christian Gold. The British Journal of Psychiatry, Jul 2011, 199 (2) 132-139.(http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/199/2/132)

14. It sounds like you enjoy your job as a music therapist very much.

Yes I do! I have liked music very much since I was young. Through the course of my work, I realised that music naturally reaches out to people with autism and those who are non-verbal. In mental health, music means a lot to my clients and it even gives them meaning to their lives.

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And there you have it. If you liked this post, leave a comment below and let me know what you’d like to see featured in future Q&A articles!

P.S. You can find out more about music therapy in Singapore here at the Association for Music Therapy Singapore’s blog.

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One thought on “Q&A: Music Therapy and Mental Health

  1. Thank you for the publication of this article. I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Germaine in Sydney during the time of her studies. It was through her that I was introduced to the concept of music therapy and I witnessed her remarkable work – first hand. My mother was formally diagnosed with dementia seven years ago. Recently, her verbal ability and responses to questions have reached a new low point (mainly single words “Yes”, “No”, “ok” …etc).

    This article accurately reflects the impact Music Therapy has had on my mother, triggering parts of her mind we previously thought she had permanently lost.

    Publications of more articles on Music Therapy would raise awareness and serve as a lifeline for the mentally ill and those around them.

    Liked by 1 person

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