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Music therapy for depression, an ayurvedic approach to mental illness?

India is currently in the grip of an epidemic of mental illness. Vast swathes of the population suffer depression, anxiety and other conditions to varying degrees, affecting 13.7 percent of India’s population.

Despite huge numbers of sufferers with poor mental health across the country, treatment for mental illness is hard to come by. This much was highlighted by President Ram Nath Kovind, who said last year that up to ninety percent of Indians suffering with mental health issues do not receive any kind of treatment.

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Individuals with depression often do not seek help

The absence of such treatment must be addressed – particularly as suicide rates increase nationwide. There must also be efforts to investigate whether more unorthodox methods could prove effective in alleviating the symptoms of mental health conditions.

This can involve looking to ancient alternative therapies of healing like Ayurveda and yoga, according to psychotherapist Dr Vihan Sanyal. These traditional methods promote the use of music and dance movements in treating mental illness. Dr Sanyal claims that Indian classical music has different ragas which stimulate certain parts of our brain. This can have a therapeutic effect on the individual.

Such a simplistic method of treating often severe conditions such as depression warrants a considerable amount of doubt. However, some scientific studies back up these claims.

A review of a number of studies published on shows that, in four of five studies investigating the use of music therapy in the treatment of depression, the outcome was positive. These studies were conducted by adding music therapy to the standard care routine of individuals suffering from depression. These results were then compared to a control group who were subject to only the standard therapy routine.

In four of the five studies it was found that levels of depression were reported by the subjects to be lower when they also received music therapy. The fifth study showed that on average the patients were reporting no significant change in mental state when music therapy was added to their treatment regime.

The implications of this is that in most cases there is a potential for improved outcomes if music therapy is used in addition to standard treatment methods. Treatment adherence for music therapy was also found to be consistently very high.

More recent studies have shown that even in isolation, music therapy can provide benefits to those suffering from depression. One study published in the journal Aging and Mental Health found that, over an eight-week period, music therapy reduced both depressive tendencies and systolic blood pressure in a test group of elderly individuals.

Participants in the trial were played music three times a week for eight weeks. Measurements were taken by using the “geriatric depression scale”, with measurements taken at the beginning and end of the trial. For music therapy to also have seemingly reduced blood pressure levels indicates there is great potential for the therapy. This method of treatment also has the advantage of having no side effects due to the lack of any chemical intervention.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to depression. This is part may stem from reduced physical and mental activity due to deteriorating capabilities as they age. Music is an easy way to provide mental stimulation, even to those who are physically frail. This in turn may have considerable positive effects on mental health, as the trials have shown.

Music can result in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine — involved in reward, motivation, memory, attention and even regulating body movements. Poorly regulated dopamine levels, as well as levels of serotonin and noradrenaline, have all been implicated as causative factors of depression. Each individual may have a different causative factor behind their depression, making the disease often difficult to treat using medication.

Dr Sanyal further suggests additions of aspects such as dance to the music therapy. This, again, is an ayurvedic practice that is rooted in science. It is a well known fact that even something as simple as a change in posture can affect a person’s mental state. In addition, physical exercise of any kind releases endorphins, another neurotransmitter that has a role in affecting mood.

More indirect effects may be observed through Dr Sanyal’s proposed music therapy groups. He notes that social inclusion within a group environment, with all attendees performing music and dance together could increase social inclusion and reduce withdrawal in those suffering from depression.

In many areas of India where vital mental health services are as of yet, lacking, such group music sessions could become a means of beginning to address the considerable and neglected issue of mental health. At the very least, such sessions could provide group support for these patients. This should be not grounds for complacency. The absence of clinical care for many Indian patients suffering from mental health conditions demands being addressed. However, integrating a broader range of therapies to improve patient care can only be advantageous for mental health.

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