The Power of Music: How Music Therapy is Helping War Vets

Every year on November 11, Canadians across the country take a moment to remember the veterans who fought for our country in World War I and II, and for the soldiers who are currently in service today. Many Canadians wear a poppy and attend a community memorial service in honour of these fine men and women who sacrificed their time, their families, and sometimes even their own lives for their country. But what happens after Remembrance Day when the poppies are taken off and we return to our normal daily routine? How many of us are familiar with the everyday lives of veterans and their struggles?

On January 25, in alignment with the Bell Let’s Talk mental health campaign and a full day of events at Studio Bell, I would like to focus on the mental health of our country’s veterans—these brave men and women who’ve sacrificed for all of us, the outstanding service they’ve done for our country, and some of the issues they face today.

First, let’s explore some numbers:

  • As of March 2014, the estimated combined veteran population from World War II, the Korean War, and CF veterans (Regular Forces and Primary Reserves) is a staggering 685,300 veterans ranging in ages from 57 to 91.
  • According to Veterans Affairs Canada, about 20 per cent of this population has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives with the most common issues being depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders.
  • Additionally, according to a 2010 study, 95 per cent of the veterans diagnosed with a mental health disorder also suffered from a chronic physical health condition.

How do these numbers compare to the rest of the Canadian population?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), a similar percentage—20 per cent of Canadians—will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives. However, a much smaller percentage of the general population will suffer from major depression (eight per cent) and anxiety (five per cent) compared to veterans. In a 2013 Statistics Canada report, it was found that PTSD and panic disorders were twice as high in a given 12-month period for those Regular Force members who were deployed in Afghanistan compared to those who were not. This demonstrates how a veteran’s mental health is intricately tied to their career. The consequences of these mental health disorders can lead to tragic cases of homelessness and suicide that often go undocumented.

Addressing the importance of mental health and disorders is incredibly important for Canadians alike and especially for veterans who have dedicated their lives in the service of our great country. VETS Canada (Veterans Emergency Transition Services)—a non-profit national organization based in Nova Scotia—is dedicated to addressing the emergency transition services of veterans in crisis and in need of help. Their modus operandi is to provide 24/7 support to any veteran in need of counsel, shelter, food, or clothing with their network of 135,000 (most are ex-military and RCMP) and hundreds of amazing volunteers across the country. In partnership with Veteran Affairs Canada, their goal is to end veteran homelessness and to provide support for mental health disorders. Two of their programs are an example of their dedication to veterans:

  1. Boots on the Ground is an initiative where the program lead (usually a veteran) will walk with a group of volunteers in search of homeless veterans. Once found, the veterans are set up with immediate shelter, food, healthcare support, counsel, and job support.
  2. Guitars for Vets is a program for veterans suffering from PTSD and other related disorders such as depression and anxiety. The veterans are given a gently used guitar with 10 free lessons from a volunteer teacher. The results of this program are powerful and life changing.

Music became my lifeline

Meet VETS Canada Founder, Jim Lowther: Jim founded the organization in 2011, and as a veteran himself, he suffered from PTSD and no matter what he tried (psychology and psychiatry appointments, medication, yoga) nothing could silence the noise in his head.

According to the CMHA, PTSD is a mental illness and is usually characterized by exposure to a traumatic event such as death or serious injury. PTSD can also be emotional trauma from an abusive relationship. PTSD is known for intrusive symptoms, such as re-living the traumatic event(s) with vivid flashbacks, nightmares, and recurring thoughts.

For Jim, the “cycle of despair” was ongoing and there seemed to be little hope. However, one day he decided to pick up the guitar that was sitting in the corner of his basement. He began to strum the guitar. The combination of the vibrations of the strings, the sound of the guitar, and the focus required to play the guitar, stopped the cycle of despair for a brief moment. It was quite the discovery. It was a great relief. Something very powerful happened.

From then on, Jim began to play the guitar more regularly. He was a beginner guitarist, but that didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was the process of playing the music—at the time it was the Beatles with some feel-good chords and lyrics. He also sang along as the song started to come together. The brief breaks of the cycle of despair grew to longer moments. The noise in his head began to lessen. Life started to become more bearable.

For Jim, playing music is therapy for him. It was his lifeline, and from his own observations of other veterans playing music, it became their lifelines as well. Jim strongly believes that music is unlike anything else he has encountered before. Playing music is pure and can sometimes even be spiritual. Music is about engaging with something that is bigger than ourselves, and playing music—especially after great suffering—can be healing beyond words.

As a music therapist and musician, I deeply understand Jim’s experience of music. The effects of music can be powerful, life changing, and life giving. Just like Jim, I have personally experienced the flow of music; being lost in music, giving myself an escape from the noise of the outside world. Music is a powerful entity that demands you to be fully present. In the moment of vibrations and sounds, it can be beautiful, dissonant, but ultimately expressive and healing.

Shortly after that fateful day when Jim picked up his guitar, he was able to come off his medication. Instead, music became his medicine. Jim now claims that, “music is my pill.”

Jim’s personal experience inspired him to reach out to other veterans like himself. He wanted to help those who are suffering and who need support. To date, the organization has helped over 1,600 homeless and in-crisis veterans get off the streets and back on their feet. Guitars for Vets Canada has assisted over 800 soldiers and veterans suffering from PTSD and other disabilities. Each year more veterans are being reached and assisted, and with your help, we can all continue to make a difference together.

Jim Lowther, President and CEO of VETS Canada (left), with Canadian singer-songwriter and founder of Great Big Sea, Séan McCann (right).
Jim Lowther, President and CEO of VETS Canada (left), with Canadian singer-songwriter and founder of Great Big Sea, Séan McCann (right).

What you can do to help

I invite each reader to take this opportunity to speak to a family member, friend, or colleague about mental health. The first step is to start the conversation, share experiences, be open and supportive. Many Canadians from all walks of life—including veterans—are affected by mental health issues every year. Spreading awareness, educating others about mental health issues, sharing compassion, and supporting programs like VETS Canada will help greatly.

If you would like to help directly with the VETS Canada organization, please go to their website:

There is an ongoing need for volunteers, gently used guitars, and financial donations for future services and music programming. If you would like to donate a guitar, many Long & McQuade stores will accept the guitar on behalf of the organization.

Steve Gilliss is the National Director for Guitars for Vets Canada based in Alberta: