Let’s Talk: Connecting through Music

January 27, 2016

The Bell Let’s Talk campaign about mental health awareness strikes a chord deep within my heart.

I am personally affected by mental health in three significant ways:

  1. As a music therapist who works with people who have mental health illnesses.
  2. I have family and friends who have experienced mental health issues.
  3. Everyone has experienced some form of mental health challenges at some point in our lives, even if it wasn’t necessarily a fully diagnosed illness. I am no exception.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as, “[…]a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” In addition, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (WHO 2014)

From these definitions, we can safely assume mental health issues affect us all.

In 2015, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) released some surprising statistics:

  • 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental health illness in their lifetime.
  • Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression.
  • 1% of Canadians will experience schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

If these numbers aren’t staggering enough, about half of the people who have experienced major depression have never visited the doctor to discuss the problem. Added to the fact that one of the leading causes of death among young Canadians 15–24 years old is suicide, and this paints a very grim picture. (CMHA 2015)

Whether we are currently dealing with a diagnosed illness or simply not operating as our best selves, the state of our mental health can change daily.

I strongly advocate that we all become more actively aware of our emotional well-being and understand how to best take care of our personal needs as well as the needs of others around us. However, just as our lives are different, our experiences with mental health can also be unique. Because of this, things don’t always appear as black and white—we need to learn to be open and understanding of others who deal with these issues.

Awareness can be easy to understand, but often difficult to put into practice. For instance, right now it’s flu season and someone from your workplace might take a sick day because they’ve caught the flu. Would you blame that person for catching the flu and missing work? Probably not. The same scenario can be applied to people experiencing difficulties with their mental health.

A lack of awareness about mental health is a societal issue. A lack of resources to gain the proper knowledge and understanding about when and where to seek help is also a problem that we all share.

Proper resources may mean scheduling an appointment with your doctor or a registered mental health professional. In non-emergency instances, it might mean seeking positive self-remedies like speaking with a friend or loved-one, taking personal time away from work, or doing an activity we enjoy.

Personally, I enjoy playing music.

At rehearsal in preparation for the Piano Destruction premier at the Banff Centre in April 2014. Credit: Nathene Arthur.

At rehearsal in preparation for the Piano Destruction premier at the Banff Centre in April 2014. Credit: Nathene Arthur.

Music holds universal appeal. It captures and maintains our attention and it can help us express emotions when words fail. It’s creative and focuses on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. It has the ability to engage the brain in a powerful way. It’s enjoyable and motivating.

I believe deeply in the power of music.

As a music therapist, I use music to communicate with my patients. My aim is to help them understand the issues they are experiencing and use music to achieve their therapeutic goals.

I’d like to share a story about my very first patient, who happened to be a five-year-old girl named Sophia*.

From all appearances, she was an average child who was just starting school. Sophia’s mother brought her in because she told me her daughter experienced bouts of extreme anxiety. Within a few minutes of meeting Sophia, my worst fear as a new therapist was confirmed—Sophia cried.

I mean, she really cried.

Let’s keep in mind this was my first session with my first patient ever. I didn’t really know what to do to coax her to stop crying. I ended up doing the only thing I could do—I played my “Sad Song” for Sophia.

I’d never shared my sad song with anyone. This song was strictly personal and used to soothe myself when I was upset. Suddenly, here I was sharing the only comfort I knew how to give.

I played the piano chords slowly and intentionally to keep a grounded rhythm that had a lullaby/rocking feel to it. I sang her name softly and intermittently, and as I did, I listened to her crying subside slowly to short sobs and quick breaths.

I was creating a warm enveloping blanket of sounds around her and I was holding her in the music. I tried to convey to her that I cared—that she was okay—and I created a space for her to calm down.

Eventually Sophia’s short breaths slowed down, her sobs lessened, and her crying subsided completely.

This snapshot of my first music therapy session demonstrates the amazing power music can have to connect with someone and communicate in a deeply emotional sense.

With minimal words, Sophia and I fostered an understanding with each other through music. The music had provided a safe space for her to calm down.

Through successive sessions, Sophia and I became close and she began to trust me. Her anxiety—noted by her tears, physical distance, and lack of trust—slowly turned into one of shy smiles, closer contact, and letting me teach her how to play new instruments.

In the early stages of therapy, she wouldn’t touch the instruments, and if she did, she barely made a sound.

One of our goals was for Sophia to learn how to express herself confidently in music by playing loudly. With time, her confidence grew and she began to hit the drum with a loud BANG!

There was also some success with skill transference from the therapy session to her everyday life. She learned to self-soothe and interact with her classmates, whereas before she would be overwhelmed with anxiety. Her mother was very pleased with Sophia’s progress in music therapy, and I was touched by her personal growth and the trust she placed in me.

This story acts as a reminder for people to be kinder to one another and to come to a realization that some of us face substantial challenges on a daily basis. If we understand that we all have shared emotional experiences—particularly negative ones such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, and fear—then we can extend that understanding and empathy to people who experience challenges to an even higher degree.

Let’s continue the conversation about mental health awareness and look for those opportunities where we can connect with someone despite our varying challenges. Sometimes just talking, singing, or playing can provide us with a little more hope and understanding.

Let’s talk more and connect through music. After all, we’re in this together.

*Sophia’s name has been changed to protect her identity.



If you, or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, there are organizations that can help. Below is a list of several organizations in Canada who use music therapy to address these issues:


Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)

Canada’s largest addictions and mental health teaching hospital is located in Toronto. The music therapy program helps people with addictions and mental health issues to better cope with their problems through specialized therapy in individual sessions or in groups.

More info at: camh.ca


Mountainside Secondary School in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health

This partnership was to create an innovative integrated program, which addresses the emotional and physical wellness of high school students. The program is available to all students and they have access to alcohol and drug counselors, a day program, youth counselors, and a clinic with a doctor and psychiatrist. Among these options, music therapy is also included.

Watch the video here.


Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT)

CAMT is the national association where you can find out more about the profession of music therapy.

Visit: musictherapy.ca


Many smaller projects (including mental health but not limited to) are funded through Music Heals, a charity based in Vancouver:

Visit Music Heals website: musicheals.ca


Other projects are funded through the Music Therapy Trust fund based in Toronto:

More info at: musictherapytrust.ca

About the Author

Sara Pun

Sara is a native Calgarian, born and raised. She is currently a PhD student in Ethnomusicology at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Her interest is in Balinese gamelan and Japanese taiko drumming. Sara's research topic will explore the role of music in the community and possibilities in improvisation. Her main instrument is the piano, however, she also plays a variety of instruments, including the guitar, clarinet, Balinese gender wayang, and taiko drums. Besides her current studies, Sara is also a music therapist and music educator. Sara is a passionate advocate of music and she likes to share with new audiences how music is powerful and can have a positive effect on health and overall well-being. She has published two books related to music therapy, and they can be found at sworldmusic.com.

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