• Danielle Lowe, MT-BC

Music Therapy with Mental Health Communities

I am most passionate about working as a music therapist with mental health communities. For many clients - music therapy is a novel experience that allows them to approach treatment in a different way. Individuals with mental illness are often incredibly creative and love to use music as a source of healing. I have facilitated groups in a variety of settings, such as inpatient psychiatry, outpatient facilities, community centers, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, and residential treatment. In these settings, I have worked with individuals with a variety of diagnoses, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis and substance use disorders. Before I delve deeper, here are a few “must know” terms:


Detox - the first step in one’s recovery from substance abuse, a process in which the initial psychological and medical symptoms are treated (tremors, anxiety, cold sweats, AH, VH, headaches, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, 24 hour medical and psychological support

Residential - a 24 hour program focused primarily on the safety of the client, medication management and beginning psychological aspects of the illness

Partial Hospitalization (PHP) - typically 8-12 hours/day of treatment, psychological symptoms are the main focus of treatment

IOP - lower level of care, typically 3-4 hours a day, continued focus on psychological symptoms as well as after care

Sober - one approach to substance abuse recovery, living without the use of substances, “clean”

Harm reduction - another approach to substance abuse recovery that involves lessening the usage of drugs and alcohol but not removing them entirely

AA/Big Blue Book - Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12 step model housed in the “Big Blue Book” that takes a spiritual approach to healing

ETOH - short hand for alcohol

THC - short hand for marijuana

SI - short hand for suicidal ideation

SH - short hand for self harm

HI - short hand for homicidal ideation

Delusions - fixed, false beliefs that conflict with reality (examples may include delusions, such as the belief that one is the president or a famous musician)

Hallucinations - perceived visions, sounds, or smells that seem real, but are not

Mania - a period of abnormally elevated or irritable mood, intense energy, racing thoughts, and other extreme behaviors (examples include excessive spending, binge eating)


There are a variety of ways that music therapists can help individuals with mental illness diagnoses. Goals that I work on with clients include:


• Increasing relaxation

• Increasing emotion identification and expression

• Increasing insight and self-awareness

• Increasing coping skills

• Increasing goal setting

• Increasing healthy social connections

• Getting in touch with self outside of the mental illness symptoms

• Decreasing anxiety

• increasing mood

• Increasing mindfulness

• Increasing reality orientation


Interventions to facilitate these goals include:


• Song Story Questionnaire (Writing down song associations that pertain to various times in a person’s life, such as “childhood” or “a difficult mental health day” to help tell the story of one’s life)

• Songwriting

• Group Drumming

• Group Instrument Playing

• Music and Art (creating album artwork/track-list, mindful drawing/listening)

• Song Sharing

• Music and Mindfulness

• Guided Meditation

• Music and Movement (Stretching, Breathing)

• Lyric Analysis / Music Video Analysis


Working in mental health can be both very difficult and also incredibly rewarding. I often will see clients readmitted to a facility four or five times a year. I feel thankful that they are safe under a facility’s care, but it can also be incredibly upsetting to see someone continue to struggle. The mental health system in America is also incredibly broken, and I sometimes see clients at the mercy of this by means of poor access to after care and treatment stays cut too short.


On the other hand, I also get to bear witness to clients’ incredible strength and vulnerability. I often find myself amazed seeing a client’s progress from their time of admission to discharge. In these moments, I feel honored and privileged that I got to play a small part in their journey towards healing. As someone who has also struggled with mental illness personally, this work also allows me to pay it forward to those in need, just as I once was.


Here are a few resources I have found helpful throughout my time as a music therapist working in mental health:


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Finding MH treatment, resources, news

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - Info about suicide, preventing suicide

Your Life, Your Voice - Mental Health for Teens

Origins: America's Long-Suffering Mental Health System - History and Current Status of Mental Health Attitudes and Care in America

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