Taking a look at the world today, you can’t help being deeply concerned by the conditions in which our young people are growing up.
The strides made in science, technology, medicine and the arts are outpaced by the pollution of the natural environment on which we depend, the lack of progress made in improving the basic quality of life and an inability to resolve differences without resorting to violence.
Not only do the young have to contend with the myriad effects of all these issues, but as they spend more and more of their life on the internet, they’re exposed to problems today’s adults never faced when growing up. Problems such as cyber crime, cyber bullying, depraved and demeaning commentary and violent video games.
It is no wonder, then, that mental illness among the youngest members of our society is a huge concern. Add to this the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and it’s no wonder that, far from getting the help they need and deserve, young people are self-destructing by suicide, substance abuse and other self-harming behaviours in increasing numbers every year.
In honour of World Mental Health Day, with its theme of Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World, in this article I look at mental illness and how music helps to improve the mental health and wellbeing of you or your child.
Mental Health Defined
Before looking at mental illness, it’s important to understand mental health.
The term mental health refers to a person’s overall psychological well-being. It includes the way in which we feel about ourselves, our ability to manage our emotions and deal with life challenges. It’s about the quality of our relationships with family, friends, business colleagues and the world at large.
One can either have good mental health or experience poor mental health, which is more commonly known as mental illness.
Good Mental Health
Good mental health, according to the Mental Health Foundation, refers primarily to one’s ability to “feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions, form and maintain good relationships with others and cope with and manage change and uncertainty.”
It is critical to note that having good mental health doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anxiety, panic or stress. Rather, people who are in good mental health are able to bounce back from the challenges that create these emotions in the same way that a physically healthy person is able to recover from illness or injury.
This ability to bounce back, also known as resilience, enables people with good mental health to remain focused, flexible and productive in good and bad times.
Mental illness takes many forms and affects the way we think, feel and act. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental illnesses are traditionally divided into groups with either neurotic or psychotic symptoms.
Neurotic covers those symptoms that can be regarded as severe forms of normal emotional experiences such as depression, anxiety or panic
Psychotic symptoms interfere with a person’s perception of reality and may include hallucinations such as seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that no one else can.
There’s been a lot of stigma attached to mental illness over the years. For this reason, people tend to play down the symptoms or ignore them until they become life-threatening.
It’s important, however, to understand that mental illness is a medical condition just like diabetes, cancer or hypertension are. And just like any other illness, it can be diagnosed and treated so that the sufferer goes on to live a full life.
The Impact of Mental Illnesses on Young People
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, worldwide, 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental disorders. They say that, “half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s” and that “if untreated, these conditions severely influence children’s development, their educational attainments and their potential to live fulfilling and productive lives.”
These statistics become even more distressing when one reads the available statistical data for self-harming and substance abuse among the young in countries that record such data. Moreso when taken into consideration that WHO reports suicide as the second leading cause of death among the young globally.
Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness
It can’t be emphasised enough that if you’re having suicidal thoughts, or a friend or child expresses suicidal thoughts or intent, or thoughts of harming others then you must immediately seek medical help.
For other cases where the need for help isn’t as obvious, the American Psychiatric Association provides a list of signs and symptoms to look out for.
If you, your friend or child are experiencing several of them and they’re affecting the ability to study, work or relate to others, it is important to follow up with a mental health professional.
Early intervention often minimises or delays symptoms, prevents hospitalisation and improves prognosis.
Sleep or appetite changes—Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
Mood changes—Rapid or dramatic shifts in emotions or depressed feelings
Withdrawal—Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
Drop in functioning—An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
Problems thinking—Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
Increased sensitivity—Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
Apathy—Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
Feeling disconnected—A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
Illogical thinking—Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
Nervousness—Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
Let me first make it clear that music isn’t a substitute for seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional if one is experiencing the signs and symptoms associated with mental illness outlined above.
However, it has been documented extensively that both listening to and creating music can have positive effects on one’s mood and thus on one’s mental health.
Therefore, incorporating music into everyday life can help both you, or your child, to relax and feel centred, increase the efficiency of brain processing and elevate mood and motivation.
Here are five ways to incorporate music into your own life or that of your child.
1. Banishing Loneliness
Loneliness is an inevitable part of human life, but for young people it can often feel like a confirmation of their worthlessness that there is no one available in the moment to keep them company.
The beauty of music is that it can arrest those feelings of loneliness and isolation by creating a sense of connectedness to the singer and the experiences and emotion being expressed in the song.
Much of the music that young people listen to may agitate rather than relax. Yet, it’s been long established that music can act as a stress management tool and aid relaxation.
If your kid is feeling agitated, anxious or panicked, have them lie down on a couch for half and hour and introduce them to quiet Classical or New Age or instrumental music.
The benefits for them will be slowing of the pulse and heart rate, lowering of blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormones.
3. Improve Concentration
Problems with concentration or hypersensitivity to one’s environment are some of those issues that can come along with mental illness, and another one of the many mental health benefits of music is that it has the ability to improve your concentration and help you focus on certain tasks.
Finding the right music can be a bit tricky since we all have different musical tastes, but generally instrumental music is better than music with lyrics which can be distracting. Try classical, instrument trance, jazz, techno or other instrumental type sounds playing softly in the background.
4. Increase Motivation
If you or your child has a task to do which seems too daunting or too boring for words, music with a quick tempo can have a significant impact on getting the task done.
Studies on athletes have shown that slower music actually slows you down—physically and mentally—while quick music has the opposite effect.
So get that fast-paced music cranking.
5. Encourage Self Expression
Finally, if a child is finding it hard to express their emotions, try turning to music for help.
Instead of spending hours of their time consuming internet trash, turn them on to creating their own music on their computer.
Just the basics of a computer and software like GarageBand is all they need to get started making their own music and expressing in sound what they may not yet be able to do in words.
As you’ve seen in this article, mental illness is a growing challenge for young people across the globe, but with more awareness and support, we can help them get the care they deserve.