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The Songs That Saved Them From Suicide

The science around music therapy is nascent, but there’s no doubt that it’s already saving lives

“This song pulled me from the brink of suicide. No lie. This song saved… this album saved my life. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that.”

It was maybe the last thing I expected to see while browsing Kacey Musgraves’ music videos on YouTube on a late, lazy Friday night. But as I scrolled through more reactions in the comments of her song “Rainbow,” I noticed that this somber message, from a guy named Gregory, wasn’t alone.

“Gonna get real honest for a second. I was severely depressed and contemplating suicide, and this song literally helped me through it… Kacey Musgraves is an angel sent from above,” wrote Kristina.

“I’m so sick and suffering a nasty disease and this song gives me courage to be a warrior and live because life is worth it,” added Duncan.

I’ve been a musician and music lover for the vast majority of my life, and my spirals into depression — and back out of those phases, for that matter — have always been soundtracked by a steady stream of albums. I never really bothered to consider the role of that soundtrack in adjusting my mood and outlook, nor why a song could be so effective in walking someone like myself back from the metaphorical cliff’s edge. Nor when I went searching for stories from people who had lived this experience, did I anticipate so many people would want to reach out, wanting to talk.

In hindsight, of course that makes sense. The average American listens to more than 32 hours of music each week, and that figure has been steadily on the rise in the last few years. And no matter how much you consume, every person seems to have some emotional connection to music, whether it’s because a song reminds them of a certain moment or because the vibe of the composition itself stirs up feelings. Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” and for the people who say music saved their life, it’s also a shorthand for recovery.

Haley, a 27-year-old in Seattle, tells me that she’s struggled with mental health issues from a young age — an early breaking point coming when she was just 13. “I was in such a small town [Houston, Minnesota (population: 979)]. Everyone knew everyone’s business all the time. I remember being 13, and my best friends at the time decided they didn’t want to be my best friend anymore, which is hard as a 13-year-old,” she says. “They told me on IM that I should just kill myself because nobody liked me. That was the first time I had a panic attack.”

She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder early in high school. Her parents went through a divorce. Her older sister attempted suicide. She had trouble making sense of how everyone else in her small town seemed to lead comfortable, pleasant lives while she spent nights crying on the floor of her bedroom. Later, she fell into an abusive relationship in college, which eventually motivated her to attempt suicide at age 19. Like her sister, Haley survived. She was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The silver lining was that the incident taught Haley that she should seek professional help.

All through this time, however, her love of emo and pop-punk bands helped carry her into each new day. She admits that some songs played as the backing track to destructive acts — to this day, “Say Something” by A Great Big World reminds her of sitting in her car, harming herself with a blade while the ballad blared. More often, however, the music helped erase some of the darkest thoughts piling up in her mind. She points to one specific song that she played over and over again: “Swim,” by Jack’s Mannequin.

“That was my jam for when I was feeling like shit. Because it’s hopeful, but in a way that says, ‘Life is crappy, but you just have to keep going, and there’s brighter stuff on the other side,’” she explains. “There was something in the song just telling me, ‘Okay, get up and move.’ Even being depressed, the fact I was so connected to my music got me out of the house. And getting up, moving and doing stuff starts to trigger all sorts of other things in your body.”

It’s no surprise that Haley bonded so closely with the indie/emo rock scene of the early 2000s, which is something she shares with me and a whole swath of millennials. So many artists, be it Jack’s Mannequin, My Chemical Romance or Conor Oberst, seemed to define and articulate the rage and sadness of modern adolescence with more clarity than I ever could. Leland, a 25-year-old in Central Florida, says that’s a big reason why music has played such an outsized emotional role in his life. “I’ve never been good at expressing emotion, and music was an outlet for me to express myself. Whether happy or mad, I could always find a song that hit the right nerve. It brought me comfort and helped me relate to those around me, which hasn’t always been easy,” he says.

Leland has managed depression and anxiety since he was a child, but credits the swaggering punk band Rise Against for helping him find his emotional center as well as a community. He saw the band for the first time in high school, and has used their music to buoy his mood countless times in his life. He points to the song “Tragedy + Time” as one of his top tracks, primarily because it talks about depression and eventually learning to smile again (“It just warms my heart,” Leland says).

Beyond just relating to the music, Leland continues to find purpose through Rise Against’s music. He credits the group for introducing politics into his life, and opening his mind to social issues like inequality and animal rights. “When I hear these songs today, I’m reminded of the fire I had as a youth to fight for change. I’m a huge advocate for mental health, and the songs remind me that no matter what age I am, I can do something, even if it’s something as simple as talking to someone having a bad day,” he says. “The songs serve as a reminder of my foundational beliefs. A stone to which I can always come back to when I let the pressures of the world cloud my mind.”

It makes sense that songs that speak to loneliness and sadness — or conversely, try to motivate you with a hot dose of righteousness (like Rise Against) — would be inspiring to those looking for a way to feel normal. But while nearly everyone I spoke to referenced songs or bands with lyrics, the power of music to affect our spirit goes far deeper than something so literal.

Renee Dundas has worked as a music therapist for more than two decades, and has experienced a wide range of clients and conditions at her practice, Living Music, in L.A. Whether it’s playing together on an instrument or just listening to a tune, Dundas has learned that music is an effective tool for shifting one’s mental state — no matter if the patient is a young child with autism or an old military veteran with PTSD. Music therapy isn’t yet widespread or even understood in the broader mental healthcare community, but most who try it find that there’s something immediate and relatable about communicating through melody, she says.

“Music therapists are psychologists as well as musicians, and there are specific ways we use music to access parts of individuals that you can’t reach through talk therapy. In talk therapy, you have to figure out how to articulate how you feel. You have to say things you might not fully understand. It’s threatening to a lot of people,” Dundas says. “Whereas, if you give someone a drum, and tell them to play how they feel, well, they might not get it at first, but all of a sudden, they start playing and experimenting and connect to a sound. That’s where we start.”

Dundas has been a musician for as long as she can remember, having started piano lessons as a young girl before moving onto other instruments like the guitar and drums. Later in life, she took jobs in the record industry, hoping to continue her love affair with music in a professional setting. But a car accident when she was just 25 changed the course of her life permanently — her husband was killed, and Dundas barely survived. Now 63, she recalls how the physical and emotional trauma of that moment invaded her life for years, leaving her in a fog of fatigue, unwilling to leave bed for days at a time.

The loss of her husband also sapped Dundas’ will to play music. “I was unable to listen to, play or do anything having to do with music,” she says. She only returned to her piano after she turned 30, at the behest of a friend who suggested Dundas should reconnect with her oldest hobby. One quiet morning, Dundas shuffled over to her piano, and with hesitation, lifted the wooden cover off the keys. “Sitting there at the piano again, my life changed,” she says. “I don’t know how, exactly. But that’s when my recovery began, all those years later.”

Her fingers began to regain their memory as she played through some of her favorite classical pieces. One of the most important during this time was the Inventions and Sinfonias collection by Bach, which also happens to be a common resource for piano students learning intermediate technique. Plunking through the melancholy melodies of her favorite composer refocused Dundas’ mind, and ultimately, the compelling effect of music on her health inspired Dundas to go back to school to become a music therapist.

The study of music’s therapeutic benefits is still a young field, and much of our current understanding emerged in the 20th century. Outside of modern medical research, however, it seems that humans have known for a long time that rhythm and song have impacts on our well-being. There’s anthropological evidence that our ancestors began to communicate with gestures and music-like vocal elements before the development of coherent languages, suggesting a deeply ingrained connection with music.

As time passed, early civilizations such as Mesopotamia saw value in using music as medicine — the first mention of its influence arrives in Egyptian medical papyri from 1500 BCE, according to psychologist and researcher Rolando Benenzon. And Greek minds like Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras all wrote about the importance of music to the human soul. The science of research has changed since then, of course, but researchers across eras have consistently reached a similar conclusion: That, as philosopher Susanne Langer noted in 1951, music “reveals the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.”

This isn’t to say that music soothes us simply because it helps us understand emotion. New research is still unpacking why hearing music triggers physical responses in our brains and bodies. To that end, Dundas cites an example of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s: “Why is that they can’t remember their kid’s name or what they ate for breakfast, but they can sing a song that they first heard as a teenager? How is it that this can suddenly help them remember other things, too?” she says. “Music gets stored in our limbic system. It’s right next to our survival instincts.”

Ironically, the subject and tone of a piece of music seems to have no correlation to whether or not it helps someone cope with troubling thoughts. Some people want to hear music that champions joy and simple pleasures, while others prefer anthems about depression and suicide or even outright angry, violent songs. The people I spoke with noted that just like with talk therapy, the purpose of music isn’t just to cheer you up — it’s to be vulnerable and honest about the way you feel.

“The music that I was listening to, I think my parents were probably concerned because it sounds so dark and dramatic, but for me, it was so helpful because… well, two of the things that you learn as a therapist, right off the bat, is normalization and validation,” Haley tells me. “And it’s basically helping someone realize that what they’re feeling is normal and validating what they’re going through is shit but a normal part of life.”

In turn, people come to understand that there are many others who feel just like them, whether it’s because they see comments on a music video or end up swapping personal stories on a band’s Reddit page. “I’d find music on the internet, and there would be message boards with people talking about how an album helped them personally,” says Haley. “I connected with that. I could find other people who were struggling, and swap music with them. Social connection is so important in healing and in growth, and when you’re feeling like crap, you need it.”

The future therapeutic potential of music remains glaringly bright, given how much more we have to learn about its mechanisms and effects. Dundas is especially optimistic about the growth of neurologic music therapy, which aims to repair broken motor and cognitive functions (like the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease) through musical tools. That could be a massive breakthrough, but for now, I’m still enthralled by the ways that a favorite song can help push people to see a small sliver of light in their lives.

As such, after my call with Haley, I decide to poke through some of the songs that have helped me mope and cry and bash my head and ultimately recover: “The Ghost of You” by My Chemical Romance, “A Lack of Color” by Death Cab for Cutie and “Alchemy” by Above and Beyond. Then, on a whim, I put on Haley’s track, “Swim,” and close my eyes as the melody flooded my head:

Swim for the music that saves you when you’re not so sure you’ll survive / You gotta swim, and swim when it hurts / The whole world is watching / You haven’t come this far to fall off the earth.”

And so, for the moment at least, I continue to stay as grounded as I can.