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Megan Hughes finds that music, both happy and sad, helps her to cope with depression.

Megan’s Story

Music provides an outlet for those struggling with mental illness

On most days, waking up feels like a nightmare for her.

The alarm clock reads 7:01 a.m. as sunlight cascades through her window panes. She slams her hand down over her alarm clock, silencing the buzzing that signifies the beginning of a new day.

A familiar sense of dread fills her stomach, and her bones ache for no particular reason. She wipes yesterday’s mascara out of her eyes and rolls over to see last night’s untouched homework.

It’s been a hard couple of years for Megan Hughes.

As one of the 3.2 million teens in the U.S. suffering from depression, on most days she finds herself enveloped in deep sadness.

“I can feel completely alone and hopeless. It sucks,” Hughes said.

Music helps numb that pain.

She takes out her AirPods — a present from her dad — and fits them into her ears. She opens Apple Music, presses on her “Feel Good” playlist, and turns the volume up.

Bob Marley’s words seem to practically stop time: “Sun is shining, the weather is sweet / Make you want to move your dancing feet / To the rescue, here I am / Want you to know ya, can you understand?”

His lyrics seem to wrap themselves around her. She closes her eyes and allows the melody to wash over her body and calm the storm brewing in her brain.

Although music cannot cure Hughes’s depression, it helps her cope with the daily struggles of the illness.

In a study published by Nature Neuroscience, it was found that dopamine levels were 9% higher in volunteers when they were listening to music they enjoyed.

Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for allowing people to feel pleasure. It is known to increase in response to stimuli such as money, food, and drugs. When people experience euphoric sensations, it’s because their dopamine levels are boosted. When they’re sad, it’s because their levels are lower.

Most people turn to music for that simple reason — they like the way it makes them feel.

Hughes has an abnormally low dopamine level. This is part of the reason she has depression — she wants to be happy, but simply can’t. Listening to music helps her dopamine levels rise, providing relief from the sadness that weighs on her.

Bridget Betrand, a licensed therapist, sees a large array of clients similar to Hughes, from teens dealing with their parent’s divorce to adults struggling to find happiness in a stress-filled world.

“A lot of kids share their music with me,” Betrand said. “I think it’s very personal; t completely shapes who we are.”

Although music with positive vibes can be beneficial towards improving one’s mood, in some cases negative music can be the most beneficial.

“I would recommend sad music just as much as positive music. It can help you understand and heal from situations that positive music just can’t fix,” Betrand said.

Hughes uses this method frequently.

“Songs by artists such as Lil Peep and XXXTENTACION have helped me through some of my darkest times because they help me remember I’m not alone,” Hughes said.

Jess Dickie is a musical therapist from London. She currently runs Connections Music Therapy, an organization dedicated to using music to promote emotional and spiritual well-being.

Dickie said, “If you’re not sure if music can affect how you are feeling, try watching a sad movie with no sound […] You will find the dramatic scenes are not nearly as dramatic and do not pull on your heartstrings the way they otherwise would. Even with the dialogue, a scene is bare and empty without the soundtrack.”

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