Recent research from the University of Melbourne’s School of Music suggests that music therapy can help adolescents cope with grief after experiencing the loss of a loved one. This is great news, since many mental health experts believe that bereavement during this critical time increases a teenager’s vulnerability to mental health problems.Music therapy is a clinical technique that involves participation in musical activities, such as listening to favorite songs, improvising with musical instruments, and songwriting. The benefits of this kind of therapy reach beyond basic stress reduction and pain management. For example, neurologist Gottfried Schlaug uses music therapy to restore language skills to stroke victims.
It’s no secret that people – especially teenagers – use music for quiet reflection, mood enhancement, and to communicate their values, attitudes and beliefs to others. Also important to teens is the ability of music to convey sadness, joy, and other emotions that the teens themselves are unable (or unwilling) to express.
This research study involved sixteen young volunteers, averaging around 14-years of age, each of them grieving the death of one or more close relatives. All of them reported greater than average difficulty in dealing with the loss. Participants were divided into two groups. The first group received a questionnaire designed to measure self-perception. This test was chosen because grief is considered a potential threat to a teen’s developing sense of identity. The second group answered questions designed to measure coping skills, which are relevant to the grieving process. Each volunteer was asked to complete the questionnaire at the first and last of the music therapy sessions. Although the first group’s scores were similar before and after therapy, results showed a significant increase in the coping skills of the second group. Also, five of the participants who were interviewed after the study reported a more positive general outlook, which the researchers directly attributed to the effects of the music therapy.
Partly because of this study’s small sample size, the link between music therapy and improved adolescent coping skills remains unclear. However, this could be fantastic news, since anyone with a teen knows that teenagers love to crank up their music very loud. Plus, since self-image of a typical teen is delicate, they may be more inclined to participate in music therapy since many teens turn to music for empowering and defining themselves anyway. In the hands of a competent therapist, music is, at the very least, an ice-breaker, a communication device, and perhaps most importantly, an incentive for teens to participate in group therapy sessions they might not otherwise have attended.