Podcast: How Music Impacts Our Mental Health
Jenn talks to Dr. Roberto Olivardia about the relationship between music and our mental health. Roberto explains the benefits of both listening to and playing music, discusses why “dark” music isn’t always a red flag, and answers audience questions about how we can help young ones express and explore their thoughts and feelings through music.
Roberto Olivardia, PhD, has been treating patients for the last 20 years since his internship at McLean Hospital. He runs a private practice in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he specializes in the treatment of body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, ADD/ADHD, skin picking disorder, and males with eating disorders. Dr. Olivardia also treats patients with other anxiety and mood disorders.
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
Good morning folks. Or good afternoon, or good evening, wherever you’re joining us from. Thank you so much for joining us today to tune in, no pun intended, to our conversation that’s all about music and mental health.
I’m Jenn Kearney. I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital, and I am joined by the delightful Roberto Olivardia. Before we get started, I just want to provide a little bit of information about the session.
So, to some people, music might just be what they call background noise. You know, what you hear in an elevator or a doctor’s office. To some other people, myself included, music can bring tears to your eyes, a smile to your face.
It can even take you back in time. I had a teacher in high school actually tell me that classical music helps you focus. Whether or not that’s actually true, I don’t know. But I do have to say that I found myself working on things like my thesis or really big projects at work to epic film scores.
So thank you to John Williams and Hans Zimmer for getting me through some tough times. One of the things about music is that it’s often an outlet for a lot of people, especially kids and teens, whether it’s being played on a device or played on an instrument by themselves.
It doesn’t really matter. What we do know though, is that it has a lot of value to a lot of folks and its impact on mental health can be far reaching.
So today, Roberto and I are going to talk about how adolescents often use music to address what they find what’s important to them, whether we should pay attention to what our loved ones are listening to in terms of language, cadence, et cetera, if there’s any benefit in trying to influence our kids’ taste in music and a lot more.
So if you are unfamiliar with Roberto, I am so honored and so excited to introduce you to him. Dr. Roberto Olivardia has been treating patients for the last 20 years since his internship at McLean Hospital.
He runs a private practice in Lexington, Massachusetts specializing in the treatment of body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, ADD and ADHD, skin picking disorder and males with eating disorders.
He also treats patients with other anxiety and mood disorders. So Roberto, you and I have been talking about this for months and I’m so glad that it’s finally come to fruition.
We have talked extensively about how we both have a love for The Cure, much to my parents’ dismay when I was probably about 14 or 15, listening to some of that, like, goth rock as it was classified then.
Jenn: But I want to ask you, what role has music played in your life specifically?
Roberto: Ooh, well, I’m so glad we’re doing this topic because this is, if I were not doing this, Jenn, being a psychologist, I, without a doubt, I’d be doing something in the music business industry.
So to give you a little context, I am named after actually a very famous Brazilian singer. My mom was Brazilian and there was a singer named Roberto Carlos, who, he actually still performs.
I think he’s 80 years old but he was huge in the 70s and he’s sort of like the Lionel Richie of Brazil. Very romantic and so my mom named me after him. So I’m named after a singer.
I grew up in a house with music always playing. My dad had a very extensive record collection, 8-tracks, for those of you who might remember 8-tracks, of primarily Latin music which was what he was interested in.
But Beach Boys, ABBA, The Eagles, all of that kind of music. I myself own about 3,000 CDs. I’ve been to hundreds upon hundreds of shows and concerts in my life, since I was 10 was the first concert I went to.
So music is everything. I mean, when I was in fourth grade, I actually wrote, and I remember my teachers thought it was a little, and it was, sounded dramatic for a fourth grader, that music is my religion, my drug, my salvation, and my validation.
And I was so impressed that I even figured out what those words meant when I was 10 years old, but it has been incredibly helpful to me to connect to experiences, to feel heard, to feel validated, to just have fun, to enjoy things, to be creative.
And it’s opened me up to a lot of things and continues to, I mean, that hasn’t changed. That won’t change until the day I move to a different existence. I’m always going to be listening to music and going to shows.
Jenn: So I have to ask then, based on what you find valuable, validating, making you feel seen and heard through music, what are some of your favorite albums of all time and why? Cause I’ve got my own top five, but I want to hear yours.
Roberto: I can give you my top 10. So the first record I ever bought was The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat album.
When I was nine years old, I heard the song, We Got The Beat and I love the sound of drums, like percussion and drums is a, it’s just a very pleasing sound. And when I heard We Got The Beat, that was one of those like, oh my gosh, magical sort of music memories.
And I came home cause I heard it in school. Our music teacher allowed us to bring 45 singles, single records. And this girl brought We Got The Beat and I said, I want to buy this record and bought that record.
And to this day still my favorite album of all time in terms of just the fun and the kind of pop punk pulse of that record. And also a lot of people don’t know about the Go-Go’s, I mean, other than being, the most successful all female rock band, they just got inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in October, which I flew to Cleveland to see them.
That’s how much of a fan I am. But also a lot of their lyrics have certain, like, dark qualities to them. And I was attracted to that sort of mixture, even back then of, like, this kind of happy, sort of upbeat music with sort of, like, kind of bitter, kind of dark lyrics.
The Cure’s Disintegration, one of my fav- The Cure, another one of those seminal bands that defined a lot of my adolescence, Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album, Garbage Version 2.0, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Green Day’s American Idiot, Eminem, The Eminem Show, Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys.
I worship Brian Wilson. Let’s see. Did I say Fleetwood Mac Rumours? And then Enya, I’m a huge fan of Enya, who, of those of you who might not know, she plays in probably like spas and everything, very relaxing sort of ethereal music, and then a band called Social Distortion, which is an LA punk band.
One of my favorite albums is White Light, White Heat, White Trash. So I like punk, I mean, I really love every kind of genre of music, but those are probably, I think I said the top 10 there.
Jenn: Basically anything that speaks to you on your own personal level. Because it seems like there’s so much that’s, like, from the outside, that seems really disjointed listening to, being like, oh, Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, and also The Eminem Show.
But I feel like at some point, there’s, like, an undercurrent of commonalities in all of them. I’m assuming that it has to do more with the relatability of lyrics in some of those. But do you have, I mean, have you noticed any connection between all of those albums?
Roberto: Yeah, I think actually it could be different things. I mean, sometimes it’s absolutely the lyrics that I relate to.
Sometimes it’s just the production. Like someone like Enya, what a lot of people don’t know, she’s this, a Gaelic artist, she produces and writes her material. She has a sort of choral sounding sound to her music.
And I read an article years ago when her first single Orinoco Flow was big in the late 80s, how she will record a song sometimes and sing it in different octaves up to sometimes a hundred, 200 times, in different octaves and produce it in such a way that gives that feeling that she could never produce live. Like she’s actually never gone on tour.
She’s the most successful new age artist of all time and has never had a tour, ever, because she can’t replicate that sound. And to me, just the artistry and the persistence of being able to literally sing a song in all these different octaves of just, I respect that artistry so much.
Then you have The Eminem Show where, I mean, that album to me is like a perfect album. And anyone who’s interested in sort of, kind of therapeutic use of music, if you hear that album, that album to me is all about three ladies in his life.
The first bunch of songs are about his mom and this very complicated relationship he has and had with his mother. The middle songs are about his relationship with his wife, ex-wife, wife, ex-wife and the mother of his daughter. And then the songs towards the end are about his daughter.
So here are these three kind of females in his life. And I tell you, I mean, people, you know, he has had his controversies and whatnot, but you cannot deny that man is a lyrical genius. I mean, the way he puts words together and yet his lyrics are so deep.
And I think for rap music in particular and hip hop, which a lot of times can get dismissed as not being, you know, particularly deep.
And if you actually hear words and what is actually being said, and these people’s experiences and the resilience that people sort of go through, and Sinead O’Connor is one of those artists who I’ve always respected. And she has gone through a lot of mental health challenges and still does.
And her son tragically took his own life recently. And so it, she talks about sort of her experiences of abuse and struggling with mood disorders in her music. And then sometimes it’s just the way something sounds.
Like, I just love, like, songs like Green Day and The Ramones, their sort of rhythm that just is very pleasing. It’s almost like asking someone, why is that food a good food for you? It just, I don’t know. It just feels good.
When you were talking about your thesis, in my dissertation, you have an acknowledgements page in your dissertation, you thank your mentor and your committee and your parents and family. And I did all that.
And I also thanked The Ramones and the Go-Go’s and Green Day, and L-Seven, and Hole, and Rancid, and Social Distortion. All these, like, punk bands and The Germs. I mean, bands that, like, and my committee is like, I remember one of my committee members said, I don’t think anyone’s ever thanked Hole before.
But that was the music I was listening to to help just keep me on this rhythm. So it could be, that’s the wonderful thing about music in that we could connect to it on so many different levels to it.
Jenn: Which begs the question of, beyond recognizing that it truly is, like, music is an art form for people. And when you think of art, a lot of people think of poetry or paintings or photography.
And music isn’t, you know, music is one of those things that might not come to mind for a lot of folks. But I’m curious about how listening to or playing music can be therapeutic for someone.
I know I’ve alluded to there being a lot of mental health benefits to it, but can you shine some light on what those might actually be?
Roberto: Absolutely, and I think, especially for adolescents, what’s so important is that music is such a way of basically connecting to a community of people.
I mean, when I go to a concert and I still feel this way, that there is, it’s a spiritual event for me, is that the idea that here I am in this crowd, and sometimes it’s a big show at the Garden.
Sometimes it’s a small dingy punk club, but I don’t know any of these people, but I know I have one thing in common with all of these people, is that we like this artist. And to me that’s powerful. The idea of like, wow, like we all have this thing in common. We’re all in alignment with something here.
And there are bands that I like that are not popular. Bands that are pretty, like I mentioned, like the Germs, like, that’s an, I’m a big fan of punk music. And so a lot of people are like, who are they? But then if I ever see someone who might have like a Germs shirt or something, it rarely happens, there’s this immediate sort of connection.
So there’s a sense of community. There’s a sense of identification. I mean, you feel when you hear someone, especially as teenagers, where we’re not always emotionally literate, to be able to say, this is how I’m feeling, or this is- When you hear someone say something, like The Cure.
It was not accidental that I discovered them in my adolescence where their music has all these sort of dark qualities and those parts of all of us that can, I mean, I use the word feel dark, that I was like, oh my gosh, these people are not only speaking these words that sort of connect to something deep inside me, but the music is just, it’s also speaking that in that way.
It just is so aligned and that feeling of validation and the feeling of, okay, I’m not the only one. I’m seen and I’m heard, even though I don’t know this person. I mean, they don’t know me, but it can feel like, wow, like there clearly has to be other people in that.
But also just therapeutically it connects you, we know, and we can talk about the physical sort of and psychological benefits, but just from a social affiliation, there’s this real identification to culture too. You know music is a reflection of culture.
I mean, we think about the Vietnam War and all that was happening and the music that was around- the protest songs that were played and how they were so helpful in being able to communicate all that was going on at that time.
It was both a way of expressing all of these feelings, but also connecting to people that we can relate to in certain music. I mean, we have a national anthem that connects us to our pride of being an American or whatever country you’re in. That kind of unites us.
We think about gospel music and particularly African American communities, the role that music played in the church, at being able to sort of be free and be sort of expressive. So music, I mean, in my household was very much a part of our culture in that way.
Like, to not have mu- like, I used to be bewildered by people who were like, yeah, I kind of like music, like yeah. You know, so I’m like, what? You know, I just, it was so much a part of-
I mean, my dad, when the House of Blues in Boston first opened up, it was in the, I think 2009, 2010, one of the first bands that played there was the Gipsy Kings, who my dad was a huge fan of the Gipsy Kings.
My dad was 86 or 85, 86 years old at the time. And the House of Blues is standing, is general admission. I mean, there are some seats in the back there, but I said, would you want to see the Gipsy Kings? He’s like, of course I want to see the Gipsy Kings.
So my dad in his mid-80’s, we, that was a show. I mean, we saw Tito Puente. We saw Linda Ronstadt. I mean, he took me to my very first concert, which is the Go-Go’s in Boston when I was 10 years old. And I’m still so appreciative of him recognizing that.
And I, like you said, with The Cure and a lot of music that horrified my parents and in a way that was also part of it too. I mean, as adolescents, music is also something that you, it’s kind of like our thing in a way, and it can also be a way of sometimes separating yourself from sort of older adults.
And even though young kids like a lot of older music, but there’s something also about, like, this is ours. We don’t expect you to sort of understand this. There were some band that I liked simply because they were loud, discordant and rebellious.
And I was very attracted to that. There is that very rebellious side of me. I’m not wearing a tie now, but I always tell people, don’t let the tie fool you. There’s this little rebel there and music was such a safe way to sort of express that.
So I think, I just know, as a teenager, in particular, if you criticized the music I listened to, I felt criticized. Like I felt, I took it very personally, cause I was so adhered to these musicians as being a part of who I am.
So, and I’m not saying every teenager is like that, but I always tell parents, be aware of, if your son or daughter is really interested, into music, not saying things like, “Oh, that trash, that garbage.”
Now, granted sometimes if my parents said that, they wouldn’t say that trash, but they’d be like, ugh, that stuff. I’d be like, yeah. Cause the whole point was to have it be so messy and everything.
And that’s why punk music attract- I was appealed. It was so appealing to me, was that you didn’t have to be a, you know, know how to read or write music. You just had to be loud.
Jenn: I think there’s something that’s so impactful too about you recognizing that, like, your MO in listening to some of this music was that it was disjointed, at best. And you’re like, yeah, that’s what I’m going for.
And especially when you’re a teenager, you’re trying to figure out your own identity. You often feel misunderstood. And I mean, like, being, I was a teenager once myself, I can’t help but think that a lot of me trying to figure out who I was at best, was disjointed.
And I think that that’s why a lot of music that felt discordant to me actually spoke to me because I was like, wow, alright, people can do this for a living. Like, I’m going to make it through these years just fine.
And I think that had a huge impact on my own mental health because it makes you feel substantially less alone at that point.
Roberto: A hundred percent. And I think the other thing too, is that with music, like I, if I ran a list of all the different shows, concerts that I’ve been to, it would be like, what?
Like, I love Lionel Richie. I also love Rancid. I love- I just yesterday actually, Jenn, I saw Ronan Tynan, who’s one of the Irish tenors here in Lexington Center. I was the youngest person in the crowd. I tell you, most of the people were over 60.
And I was taking that all in, like, what this music meant to them. I mean, to me, music is also not just my own experience, but I love when I go to a show and see what it does to other people and talk, and I get into conversations with different people about what that music means to them.
But there are all these different sides. I mean, one of the things that people will know when they first, if I first meet somebody, other than, like, my family and what I do is how much into music I am and also the eclectic nature of it.
And all of it is authentic because there’s sometimes yeah, there are those artists that I just want to be sort of rebellious and discordant and loud. And then I do like Brian Wilson’s harmonies, I love, like, a perfect harmony and melody.
And when I was a kid, I used to listen, my dad bought these really good headphones from this store Lechmere, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was an electronic store before Best Buy. Yeah, good old Lechmere.
And he spent a good amount on these headphones and that was a lot for a middle class family. And I used to hear and remember hearing songs and isolate the baseline and just hear the baseline.
Then I would replay the song on the vinyl and just hear the drums and just the artistry of it. And that’s sometimes what I connected to. And then other times like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
Like, I love knowing about what inspires those songs and to know the complicated relationships of all of those members while they were making that record. I love tension, like I’m attracted to that.
I think because I think human existence is filled with tension in some ways that we’re all trying to sort of get through. And then sometimes I like just good, fun, silly song too. I think that has value to it as well.
That’s why I never got, I never understood when people sort of devalue any kind of artist. Like someone like Britney Spears, that they might say, oh, she’s just pop fluff. It’s like Britney Spears is great music to work out to, is great hooks and dance songs.
Is it the same kind of maybe depth as, like, a Bruce Springsteen song from a lyrical point of view? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean to me it’s of less value. Because what that might mean to somebody is very different.
So it’s not for me to say, what is good music or not good music. It’s just what is it for you?
Jenn: And it’s also a representation thing too. When it comes to, when you think of some pop artists, you think of like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and how much they’ve actually done for the LGBTQ+ community in terms of identity and being seen and validated and supporting them.
Because a large part of their fan base is that population. And that has such a huge impact too. I know I saw Lady Gaga in God, 2009 or 2010 and she spoke about how trans lives mattered.
And that was one of the things that like actually, I, it was something that wasn’t openly discussed as much as it is 12 years later, 13 years later. But it was like, I mean, I still remember it to this day because she said, everybody’s life matters.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what color you are, what your orientation is, but that makes an impact. You make a difference and I’m here to show you that you make a difference.
Roberto: Absolutely. And just that recognition, and I’ve always been attracted to just in general, I’m always inspired by just different people.
The clients I work with, people, I learn, my life, but with a lot of artists, I’m always interested in their story. You know, I’m a fan. Like, I’m more than a fan of just the music, I want to know about the individual.
Now, when I was a kid, there was no internet. So it took a lot of research. And I would put in that work, I’d read Billboard Magazine.
That was, I asked my dad for a subscription to Billboard, I think I was 12. And back then it was, I remember it was $110 a year, which was a lot of money back then. And I begged my dad. I’m like, please, like, you don’t have to get me anything else.
And he got me that subscription. I read, and I knew all the charts and, but I would read sort of like what inspire a lot of the artists, but absolutely. I mean, The Go-Go’s, being an all-female band that was so different.
And the idea that even back then, I remember other people talking, saying, oh, they don’t really play their instruments. Like guys are playing the instruments backstage.
Like, isn’t that crazy to think that it was like, and to know their story, I highly recommend people seeing their documentary about coming from the LA punk scene. Like, The Cure, the idea that these guys are like wearing makeup.
And they’re, you know, Robert Smith is not a great singer, like technically speaking, but his voice communicates so much angst and some of their albums, I mean, really reflect times where he was really like, they have an album called Pornography where he was really mentally deteriorating, like making that record and you hear it like on the record.
And it’s one of my favorite records because there’s something so, the rawness of that. But absolutely when you have people of color and artists that speak to the LGBTQ community, how transformative that is for people to…
Like, I remember what Madonna meant to the LGBTQ community at a time, talking about AIDS in the 80s and 90s when a lot of artists weren’t tapping into that or talking about that. So it has this sort of ripple effects of what music can really do.
When groups like Public Enemy and NWA. I mean, like rap, which was very much certainly by kind of white America by MTV, didn’t even play videos initially by black artists. And because they thought, oh, like, the heart of America isn’t going to connect to that.
Well, clearly, as they were talking about a part of America, that wouldn’t connect to what it’s like living in South Central LA. But that doesn’t take away the artistry of what these artists were doing.
And if you hear some of those songs, even if you can’t relate to it, I’m always interested in just learning about people’s experiences. So there’s the music I listen to because I relate to it.
And then there’s the music that I can’t, it’s just not my experience, but I want to understand it. I want to get a glimpse of it in a way that a song can almost convey that even more than reading a book can about it.
Jenn: Absolutely. When you mentioned NWA, one of the first things that came to mind to me was, by the way, if folks have not seen the movie Straight Out of Compton, I a hundred percent recommended it. It is brilliant.
But I do know as a product of the 90s and as somebody who grew up with being a white female in suburbia, my parents had a lot of questions about why I liked rap so much. I love Eminem, I love Dre, I love NWA.
I can see why two white parents in middle class America in suburbia could be concerned about me listening to music with drug use, sex, violence, anti-police sentiment. Any advice for those parents who may have those types of concerns?
I know it is certainly something that after, I was like, look, it’s not impacting me. I’m not anti-authority, whatever. I’m a pretty straight laced kid. I think their concerns were assuaged a little bit. But for parents who are tuning in, who might be concerned, any advice for them?
Roberto: Yeah. I think it’s, I always encourage parents to, one, if their kid is really interested in certain kinds of music is asking them what attracts them to that music, to listen to that music on your own.
Like, actually listen to the songs, listen to the lyrics and you might be surprised. I mean, sometimes I remember one of my clients, because all of my clients know how much I love music and that, especially with teenagers, that becomes part of the therapy a lot, is he was similarly upper middle class, white individual.
And his parents actually said, I don’t understand why he’s interested in this, like, gangster rap music. And he said, what attracts me to it is like, they’re just being unapologetic and just speaking the truth.
And he goes, and for me that’s a very hard thing for me to feel I can do is just saying what it is that I want to say. And they’re doing it, they’re doing it with a beat and the beat sounds good.
But the idea that there’s so, a song, any kind of art really is a documentation, is a commitment in a sense. Once it’s out there, like it’s out there, there’s an assertiveness behind any art form.
And that’s, I absolutely related to that. I mean, because I listened, again, like some, a lot of the music I listened to was in the Billboard Top 40.
And then there was a lot of stuff that was underground kind of stuff that had a lot of references to drugs and to sex and to like, and part of it was that there was that sort of anti-authority sort of adolescent, like, kind of thing. I liked the idea of, like, being a little bad, you know?
Like, I used to say, it’s too boring to be good all the time. And sometimes music was a safe way of sort of, kind of going, encroaching on that territory.
And for me, there was always a line though, too, between music that was like, there are some groups out there that are very underground that are gratuitously like violent and all that, that wasn’t my thing at all.
But if people were speaking of their experiences that happened to include violence, that to me was an authentic expression, an authentic sort of representation. And I think to understand what it is that attracts your child to that kind of music and what is it doing for them?
Because of course one of the questions a lot of times parents will ask is, is it, like, healthy for them to be listening to music that might be talking, let’s say about depression or songs that can, if you have a child that’s struggling with depression. And to me the answer is it depends.
We don’t want to label it one way or another because there are a lot of people who music is the thing that helps them through when, you know, if you’re depressed and you’re hearing, I don’t know, Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin, great song. But if you’re depressed you’re-
Jenn: But something in you is going to go, absolutely not. No, thank you.
Roberto: Yeah, bye bye. Like, not my experience. So you need groups, you need groups like The Cure or Nine Inch Nails, that have this sort of like dark kind of quality so people can feel being heard.
Now the depends part comes as to what does that do? Now if there’s somebody who’s hearing this music and it’s to them almost justifying, like, suicidality, self-harm behaviors, as opposed to, let’s say, if someone is struggling with suicidality, self-harm, and they’re listening to this and it’s enabling them to engage their feelings, to actually it models to them, hey, this is an expression.
Like Eminem once said in a Rolling Stone interview, if it weren’t for music, I’d be dead. Like, he goes, therapy, we have this assumption that everyone has access to mental health treatment and everyone has equity around mental…That’s not the case at all.
For someone like Eminem who grew up in very tough neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan, rap was his therapy.
And if you hear his records, it is all there. His life, his sobriety, dealing with addiction, dealing with his relationships, that he said, so if somebody else can hear that and think, okay, here’s somebody who they’ve survived it and they’re not, there’s no pretenses here.
Maybe that can inspire me to do that. Then it’s very helpful. Now if somebody is, let’s say listening to a group like Joy Division, which the lead singer, Ian Curtis took his life and they would listen to it as a way of saying, okay, well then maybe I should take my life as well.
Well then that’s obviously more problematic. And so that’s where we want- but we don’t want to dismiss that they’re still attracted to that music. Because even therapeutically, I would be like, well, let’s look at what, you know, what themes of this do you relate to?
And most importantly, how can you then use that to move you forward? Cause ultimately it’s about engaging you and connecting you to something, as opposed to disconnecting you and numbing you from something.
Jenn: So, how can parents start that conversation? I know I’m not looking for a script specifically, but I imagine, you know, when I was in high school and listening to Nirvana, I imagine that a similar sentiment came up, like Kurt Cobain died of a drug overdose.
That’s something that he spoke a lot about being unhappy. And I mean, I can imagine that that might have caused some concern. Again, I have very open and inquisitive parents, but I imagine that some people don’t know how to broach that conversation.
Roberto: Yeah, I mean, actually, you know, I remember that very clearly cause I was a huge, huge Nirvana fan and I was actually in my senior year in college and as a sort of externship as a clinical psych major, I went to Tufts.
I actually was at what was then the McLean child inpatient unit, which is now through Franciscan, but it was on the McLean campus and I would be in the classroom. And when Kurt Cobain took his life and all of these young kids were tuned into that, all of them were.
And it was, this was sort of, it was such a highlight for me professionally, even at that young of an age because the teachers, you know, most of them were not Nirvana fans.
And they said, you know, would you want to do some kind of, like, open group about asking people how this impacted them? I was like, absolutely.
And it was helpful because you had some kids that were like, wow, you know, they felt sad because they had struggled and struggled with depression and suicidality and they felt if he could only see the awesomeness of his talent.
And if he, and this is what depression and mental illness can sometimes do is have people not recognize that. And some kids took from that of, wow, maybe there’s more awesomeness in me that I’m not tapping into that the depression is sort of disconnecting me from. That was one.
Then you had other kids that were envious because they said, wow, he was able to get away from this tough life. And he found the solution and it actually could increase sort of almost their suicidality.
And that’s a thing, you know, this sort of contagion effect that sometimes happens with celebrity suicides, is you have to be very aware of how people are interpreting that. And so, that was really helpful to hear and then say, well, let’s talk about that.
But I wouldn’t, I think to dismiss that music or whatnot is really losing an opportunity, I feel, to know your child, or to know your client. I mean, my parents, I think music, because it was always a thing, when I started getting into The Cure and groups like that, I mean, I fully very much appreciate it more now as a parent.
I found it a little annoying when I was a teenager sometimes. And my dad’s like, what draws you to this music?
And I would explain to the best knowledge that I could, and it just was a very different kind of experience, but I did always appreciate that they weren’t just saying, oh my God, that’s garbage or that’s trash. I think they were like, a little bit freaked out at times.
And when I was an adult, I mean, I would go to shows that were kind of crazy, like chaotic, you know, lot of, kind of energy. And my mom would be like, oh, you’re going to get injured. And she’s like, why do you like that?
And I’m like, that’s just this part of like, I don’t know, this part of me that needs that kind of stimulation and that kind of engagement and almost like a slight danger in that. All of that sort of spoke to it.
So I would say to parents, ask your kids what they like about that artist, what draws them to it? Hear the music. I think this is actually a good exercise for everyone to do is to ask people, your kids, colleagues, friends, people of all different ages, what their top two, three artists or albums are, just like you had asked me, and listen to them.
That’s what, I routinely might poll my friends, be like, what are your top three albums that you’ve ever had listened to? And then I’ll go on Spotify and I’ll listen to them. And sometimes it doesn’t really connect to me and other times, it will.
But the other thing to keep in mind with music is that it’s ever evolving. I mean, there are artists that I connect to now at my age that I just didn’t really connect to 20 years ago, let’s say. And then there are artists that I connected to 20 years ago that I don’t now.
And then there are the tried and true, like The Go-Go’s and The Cure will always be part of my DNA, Brian Wilson, like certain artists that will just kind of always connect. But ask your kids about that.
Ask them, what do they do when they hear those references to drug use, to sex. And sometimes it is glamorized in the songs and whatnot. What information do they get from that? Because sometimes you’ll have kids like, they’re like, I know, like I’m not going to suddenly do heroin just because this song is about heroin.
But keep in mind, and it’s also good for parents to understand the music they were listening to as teenagers was probably seen as rebellious by their parents. And I mean, this is a generational thing. And one could argue, well, the stuff now, whoa, whoa.
You know, now it’s like really outrageous, but it’s all relative. Elvis Presley, waist down was seen as outrageous back then and too sexualized. And so, you know, to share your music. I mean, my kids have no choice. I mean, they know very well what kind of music I listen to cause I’m playing it.
I mean, my daughter, her first concert was at five, seeing The Go-Go’s at the Wilbur Theater. And we just saw Dua Lipa a couple months ago. My daughter inherited my music addiction.
So she’s been to over a dozen shows, I mean she’s only 14 and you know, we’ve seen Bruno Mars and Katy Perry and Dua Lipa and The Go-Go’s, and I mean just various kind of artists and just taking part in what it is that sort of attracts.
And I’ve noticed even in her, let’s say, what she was listening to at 10 and now as a 14 year old, almost 15 year old, like the maturity of some of the artists and the different themes that these songs have.
And I’ve had conversations with her about, I don’t want to be necessarily, like, prudish around it. And at the same time, I want to have discussions knowing that there are themes around sex and about things that are going to be in that music that I can’t shield them from.
Jenn: It’s funny, when you were asking about, like, some artists that will always stick in your mind and, like, who those people might be. I was thinking about it and I was like, okay, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters.
What exactly do any of them have in common? Not really sure. But they have all had some sort of major impact. And I also have to say, probably a lot of parental influence myself. My parents played a lot of the, like, pop rock stuff that was popular in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up.
So I heard a lot of Elton John, heard a lot of like Brian Adams, a lot of that soft rock stuff. Yeah, but I mean, also my dad was a huge rebellious person in the 70s. So there was a lot of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, like, just to name a few.
And he was also the same guy who was, like, going to anti-war protests and loved Star Wars and all of that. So like, what you imagine is a textbook guy from the 70s, that was kind of my dad. And clearly it’s had some influence on me.
Roberto: Well, I was going to say just briefly too. I mean, you’re mentioning that, right, I mean, music has this power too, of bringing us to just specific times in our lives and research shows that.
I mean, it just, it connects just so many neuronal centers in our brain that connects us to memories and to experiences. And, like, there are some songs that I can listen to and I tear up, like, immediately because it just brings me, reminds me of a certain experience.
People might remember the song that when they had a breakup, a relationship break up, or a song that they were listening to when they were grieving or a song that’s attached to something incredibly happy that just has a sort of emotional sort of resonance to it.
Jenn: Oh, absolutely.
I wanted to ask you about how we could, as a group, because everybody tuning in is curious about music, deeply passion about music or both, how can we address and help stamp out some of those longstanding fears about music, like goth, hardcore rap, et cetera, leading to kids being more violent, being self-harming, even attempting or successfully completing suicide?
Any advice about how to go about this?
Roberto: Yeah, I know that, therapeutically, I integrate with any, I mean adults as well, but particularly teens that are in interested in music and having them sort of bring in some of the music and we sort of talk about sort of what messages that they’re getting from it.
Because it’s like, in some ways, you can get kind of a message of encouragement and hope and validation. Or if, depending on the person’s frame of mind, the message could be, oh, well this is, I should be going out and using drugs and doing these kinds of things.
And then rock stars in general, you know, you have some that lead lifestyles that glamorize the kind of partying, drug use. And then they become sober and then they talk about how much better it is being sober, but that’s after the kind of image of- and getting, kind of falling into that piece.
And I think it’s very important to sort of separate that and say, there’s nothing wrong with the music, but at the end of the day, we want any kind of art form or anything to sort of, to make us feel more grounded, to make us feel more connected, more authentic, and to lead sort of a more authentic, healthy life.
And that’s what art is really meant to do, is to give voice to these things. And we know whether it’s literature or painting or songs, there are a lot of artists who were dealing with a lot of, certainly historically, undiagnosed mental illness and didn’t have the resources, didn’t have other outlets, there wasn’t a culture to talk about it.
We have a better culture now to talk about being able to take this song and then say, okay, I can relate to it here, here, and here. And now how do I sort of take that and use that as fuel to feel better and to feel more connected, to ground me, to connect me.
As opposed to something that’s going to further disconnect, further numb, further alienate people from other people.
Because even if you take, like with punk, I mean, I was one of those kids, certain part of my life hanging out in Harvard Square, which was at that time, like a little punk mecca, with kids with Mohawks and tattoos, which at that time was very radical.
And we just, I don’t know, there was this sort of relationship to how the music- But in some of those peers, some of them made decisions in their lives where it didn’t work out for them, and it didn’t move them towards a healthy direction.
And then there were other people where the music was grounding to then say, okay, I’m good. Now, how do I sort of move forward?
And that’s sort of the difference. It’s not so much like, you know, growing up in the 80s there was all this controversy about like Ozzy Osbourne was sued for having suicidal messages in his music and demonic messages.
And this idea, even when the Columbine killings, Marilyn Manson, you know, was, oh, it was Marilyn Manson’s music that made them do it. And it’s like, and that used to me, it was so simplistic to sort of look at it that way, as opposed to understanding the sort of nuance of how people are relating to this.
The fact is, is that Marilyn Manson, I’m not a particularly big fan of Marilyn Manson, but he clearly spoke to a lot of people. I mean, in the fact that his music did that.
And he, I mean, now he’s going through a lot of, there’s a lot of stuff coming about him sort of personally, in his personal life, but his music clearly spoke to people. And that to me makes it relevant.
You know, the idea who, that it’s speaking to somebody, and I’m interested in whether it’s my kid, a client, is why? What is it about it? And sometimes kids will say, it’s just the idea that it’s just opposite. Like, it’s not conforming.
But even in, like, punk music, the idea of punk music was to be anti-authority, anti-conforming. And yet, as punks or goths, they conform to being a punk or conform to being a goth. Like, there’s still a community within, like, even if the community is defined by we’re the community that doesn’t conform to the larger community, it’s not alienating.
There’s still a kinship there. When music alienates people away from everyone and if people are sort of taking those kind of messages, that’s where it becomes not as healthy for them.
Jenn: Regarding navigating these conversations about vulgar music and things that might approach violence or imply harm, do you have any thoughts about continuing the conversation around historical implications of what is “vulgar” music, created specifically by black musicians?
I don’t want to undermine the fact that there’s a lot of history of social prejudice that’s influenced this music as being liberating in it’s an act of expression and it’s something that a lot of people write off as being like, oh, that’s just trash, when there’s way more to it than meets the eye.
Roberto: Yeah. It’s a very difficult thing because obviously, it’s like beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what’s obscene could sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. And absolutely, I mean, there are some songs that I can listen to and think, whoa, okay.
That’s, like, a little, like, over the line for me. And I, again, I have a, that says a lot because I have a very large permission in terms of how, what feels like in that line. But at the same time, I often will stop short of saying kind of devaluing it for everybody.
Because I only know what’s going, what I’m relating to and sort of what I experience. And, you know, especially, like, if you take in, like, sexuality.
I mean, in certain groups, whether it’s people of color or LGBTQ, that when certain part- when you’re any group or community of people that have any kind of oppression, that music can be sort of the way where it’s just going to come out and it might come out in what other people might regard as an exaggerated way.
But sometimes that’s also a result of, or an indicator of the level of oppression that people have felt in order to have to be full tilt, you know, kind of bring it on. And so I think it’s always important before any of us judge is to understand the lens of where people are coming from. And even understanding that lens, I don’t always agree with it.
Like, there are artists that will, again, glamorize, let’s say drug use and I can like the song and not say, oh yeah, cocaine is great for you. You know, I don’t have to agree with that, but I might like the musicianship of the song.
But more importantly, I’m also interested in where the artist is with that. Because the truth is, and you hear this sometimes from artists who, that is their relationship. Let’s say if they’re using a drug, that is their relationship with that drug at that moment in time.
And to me, what’s helpful about that to hear is wow, like that is like, this person is talking about this substance like a lover, like, that of somebody that they have a relationship with. And that’s helpful information for me to understand how people who struggle with addiction might relate to something like that. Or with sex.
And, like, in the idea that some songs might be seen as gratuitously sexual of having multiple partners and whatnot. But I’m always interested too, of like well, for this person, that message might be for them, that their identity is sort of elevated in some ways, by having multiple partners.
And what’s that about? Let’s understand, where does that come from? What are the layers? I mean, music to me is like, it’s like a poem set to music. I mean, you’re looking at a snapshot of an experience that really has all these intersectional lenses attached to it.
So rather than just being like, oh, you know, and just dismissing it is to understand, well, let me try to understand what it’s like for that culture, community, and for that individual. And if my kid is listening to that, I want to know what is it about that do they relate to?
So if they’re listening to a song, are they getting the message that being promiscuous and having multiple partners is a cool thing? And if they are getting that message, I want to be able to- this song could be a good opportunity to talk about the dangers in that, or how important it is to be safe and those kinds of things.
Cause music isn’t going to be the only vehicle and venue that they’re getting that messaging in. Or you could be rest assured that they’re like, no, I think what they’re talking about is gross, but it has a sick beat to it. And I like the beat and that’s all I like to it.
And sometimes that’s all it is. It’s like a duck is sometimes just a duck. But other times it could be multi-layered and that’s why to me, it’s always interesting to have those conversations to inquire about.
And for everybody out there, who’s listening too, asking yourself what attracts you to the music you listen to and like? What is appealing to it?
And as adults, like, there are ways that I can reflect when I was, you know, as my kids are teenagers now, thinking, wow, I can almost think of it in a different way than I was even then obviously with insight and life experience of thinking, wow, there was something like, even that part…
I said earlier about a part of me that was attracted sometimes to just things that were just like bad, in a way that like, I wouldn’t have said that when I was 15. I would’ve been like, no, there’s like serious messages. And some of the music did have that.
And some of it was like, no, I just liked it because it was just like a middle finger kind of, like, to, and of no fault of my parents. I mean, that’s the other thing. I tell parents, don’t blame yourself for it. Like, this is just, I don’t know, adolescence.
Part of my own kind of wiring in some ways that just needed something sometimes to push against and music was a great way to do that.
Jenn: Well, isn’t it, I mean, you are the clinician here, correct me if I’m wrong, your prefrontal cortex, which is, like, your rational, decision making part of your brain, isn’t fully developed by the time that you’re in your, until your mid-twenties, right?
So that’s, like, where a lot of your emotion comes into play. And it makes sense why you’re like, I don’t know why I’m gravitating to this, but in this moment, I’m, as a teenager, I’m like really feeling this and I totally get it.
Roberto: Absolutely. And there’s wonderful research looking at what music does to the brain. I mean, like I said, it literally hits all of these centers of the brain. But we know music can elevate dopamine, which is a reward neurotransmitter in the brain. It can increase oxytocin, which is the bonding chemical in our brain.
I definitely feel, like I said, like, when I’m at a concert, even though the show I went to yesterday, I mean, you would look at me and think, what does he have in common with these people who are in their 70s and 80s?
And yet, we’re listening to this music and I’m noticing what it’s doing to them. And it was just, it feels like church to me. It feels very, like, spiritual. So that oxytocin, totally can feel it.
There’s evidence that shows that music can boost immune promoting chemicals in our body and help with our immune system, could help up with pain management.
There’s a fantastic documentary called Alive Inside, which I highly recommend people to watch, which was this man would visit nursing homes with people who had very severe dementia or Alzheimer’s. And he would make playlists of the music that they listened to when they were in their 20s.
And you will not see this film without tearing up because there are, they show these people who really don’t remember anything. I mean their families or anything. And they put on the headphones and they’re listening to the music and they literally just light up, Jenn.
I mean, dancing, someone who was non-verbal starts saying words, like, and I mean that is powerful.
I mean, when you think about what’s happening in our brain, that music is able to penetrate in a way that looking at your loved one in the face, you might know who they are, but yet you can listen to a song when you were 17 and 18, and it brings you back in a certain way.
So we know that it has all of these physical and mental health benefits to it as well. I mean, I don’t know what I would be without. I mean, music is so, I mean, yeah, I mean, it’s just such a- Even when I’m by myself, I always feel like I have music in my head.
Theme songs of something. I think everyone needs to have their own theme song. I think that’s an important thing.
Jenn: Is there any difference in the impact of music on your brain and body if you’re listening to it versus actually playing an instrument yourself?
Roberto: That’s a great question. Knowing musicians in my life and working with some, their relationship to it is certainly very different because they’re learning at it in a technical level. But there are a lot of benefits to playing an instrument.
I mean, I, in one of our earlier webinars on dyslexia, I think I had shared that both of my kids have dyslexia, but when my son, who is my oldest, was first diagnosed, I remember reading in a book that if that child can learn a musical instrument, it can almost help with sort of some of the neuronal connections in their brain.
That could help with reading. And so I’m like, okay. And he started piano lessons. And so music is more than just the song. It is making connections of our emotional centers as you were mentioning, to the prefrontal cortex. It is helping with problem solving, with creativity.
So for people who play instruments, there is a lot of creativity and problem solving, of mental flexibility, studies show that musicians have a lot of flexibility in being able to sort of hear and interpret things in different kinds of ways that really is quite complex.
And a lot of times it’s interesting with musicians, I’ll ask them how they enjoy music. And sometimes they say they have to really put work into just being almost a spectator to it because they’re so, like they can almost imagine tuning this note a certain way or that note another way.
But absolutely, studies show that learning a musical instrument has a lot of benefits.
Jenn: My last question for you, which I can’t believe an hour has already passed. But my last question for you is, as a clinician, have you integrated music into work with your own patient population?
And if yes, how can other clinicians tuning in incorporate music into work with their own patient populations?
Roberto: A hundred percent, a lot of times, I mean, with patients that I might work with who have a hard time expressing themselves, that if they’re music fans, I’ll ask them, are there certain artists or songs that really capture it for you? And they’ll say yes.
And I mean, now they can just put it on their phone, but 20 year ago, I mean they would bring in a CD and I’d have a CD player in the office and we would hear the song and I’d print out the lyrics.
And we would sort of look at, I might have them circle sort of phrases in it that really kind of resonate with them. I did a talk many years ago at an eating disorder conference about songs that were thematically about eating disorders.
And some of them might be sort of promoting recovery and some were promoting eating disorders. And working with eating disorder patients who sometimes will gravitate to either or both sometimes of those.
And I’ll print out the lyrics and will say, what parts of this do you personally relate to? What parts of this do you want to relate to? Cause sometimes music is also, you know, helping, it’s trying to be instructive of someone who could be like, I want to do that.
Like I remember when Eminem, he has an album called Recovery, which was all about his recovery from addiction. He has an album called Relapse.
He has another one called Recovery. And I was working with a patient at the time, who said, I’m listening to this, hoping that like, I don’t feel, I don’t want to be sober right now. But I want to want to be sober.
And I’m listening and Eminem, I’m trying to almost connect to it, to inspire me to get to a place where I can be there. And so sometimes it’s not where someone is at the moment it could be where they want to be.
But what was helpful even in one of these songs that I, we call pro-anorexic, that actually glamorized and glorified anorexia, I was working with a young man who was talking about this. And it was still helpful for me to know how much he was sort of in that mindset.
Because that informed, that was important data for me to know, as a clinician where he was. That its more than just someone saying, you know, I’m stuck, or I don’t know how to move forward when he was glamorizing this particular song that was very pro-eating disorder and saying, okay, but not judging it and not saying, well, you shouldn’t feel that way.
It’s saying, okay, well, this is helpful that I know that this is where you’re at. So that there’s work to do around that. And then also talking about, sometimes it’s easier for people to talk about what an artist feels like versus themselves.
Like, what do you think that person meant as they were writing that? And of course we’re projecting our own stuff into that. And I imagine they were feeling this, this, this, this, and this, which could be something that could be harder for a person to say, I feel this, this, and this way.
And so then eventually I try to say, well, is that how you are feeling as well? And then a lot of times people will be like, yes. And again, music almost provides this bridge of having people just be assertive.
Even if what they’re saying might not always be so pleasant. I mean, people who are like, yes, I relate to the song about suicide because I want to kill myself. Like, I want to die. And that’s a hard thing to hear.
And at the same time, it’s so important that we hear that so that we know how to help these people. So if, absolutely, if somebody is interested in music and that’s a vehicle for them, I always will bring that in therapeutically.
Jenn: So what I’ve gathered is that validation matters, representation matters, being seen and heard matters. And we can all get that from music.
Roberto: A hundred percent, a hundred percent.
Jenn: I think that’s a pretty good way to sum up this whole session. Roberto, it is always a delight. This was so much fun. I’m going to go listen to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on repeat all afternoon, thanks to you.
Jenn: And to anybody tuning in, thank you so much for joining. This concludes our chat about music and mental health.
Until next time, be nice to one another but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Thank you again, Roberto, and have a great day everyone.
Roberto: My pleasure. Take care.
Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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