Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Overwhelmed by her substantial homework load for the night, Nancy found herself fighting paralyzing waves of anxiety. Turning to the app Humm.ly, she sought solace in the soothing staccato of the first song on her “Self-Care Playlist.” After 10 minutes of listening, Nancy’s anxiety lifted. 

Humm.ly, developed by musician and entrepreneur Joanna Yu, allows users to create music tracks and meditations for emotional support. Music therapy, an evidence-based intervention, can be delivered via tech apps to improve patients’ mental health and wellbeing through playing, performing, composing, or listening to music. These interventions complement conventional mental health treatments because they provide a concrete activity for a patient to hone in on during moments of emotional distress. Lauren King of the Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University found that music therapy interventions also improve motor skills in Parkinson’s disease patients and lessen depression in vulnerable groups. Furthermore, vibroacoustic therapy can induce memory retrieval in patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Another unique intervention that combines music and technology is Cove, a free mental health app that allows users to make their own music. In the app, users can add chords, melody, percussion, and instruments to a mood to create their own music in just a few minutes. By facilitating emotional expression, Cove helps individuals process and cope with complex emotions such as those associated with anxiety and depression. The clinical explanation behind such technology is surprisingly straightforward, as Dr. Neha Chaudhary, Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Stanford Brainstorm, explains that “music releases feel-good chemicals in the brain that can lessen anxiety and boost mood. It’s like a natural form of an antidepressant.” A study by Mind, a mental health charity, found that people with mental health issues are often excluded from employment, education, and social services. But, an advantage of music therapy is that it provides a non-threatening setting for individuals, facilitating relationships, learning, self-expression, and communication. 

However, for patients suffering from severe mental illness (including severe cases of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) a few tunes will not be adequate in providing comprehensive treatment. Although increased communication and self-expression are important for patients, severe mental disorders often require medication and special clinical services that an app or vibration therapy cannot provide. Rather, music therapy should be integrated into rehabilitation programs or combined with conventional psychological interventions for optimal impact. Dr. Gowri Aragam, Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Stanford Brainstorm, explains that “music therapy can be an extremely vital part of a patient’s overall treatment plan for their mental illness. While medication is used in conjunction with talk therapy to treat the patient’s symptoms, music therapy is a tool that can be incorporated to help the patient leverage and augment those gains in order to improve self-expression, an integral part of the healing process and the human experience.” Essentially, while music therapy offers a unique therapeutic approach for people in need of support during moments of emotional distress, clinicians and app developers ought to work together to identify and improve apps’ effectiveness both inside and outside of the mental health system. 

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis