Mental health for all people: How music therapy addresses mental health for disabled people* beyond acute mental health settings
by Ruth Franklin, Music Therapy Intern
* A note on language:
I recognize that there are different ways that disabled people wish to be identified, and I acknowledge that I am not disabled. In efforts to use language respectfully and in an identity-affirming way, throughout this post, I use “disabled people.”
Mental Health and Music Therapy
When you think of mental health and music therapy, what do you think of? Perhaps you may think of music therapy in hospitals, in-patient psychiatric settings, and counseling centers, where many patients receiving music therapy are mainly working towards mental health goal areas. Music therapy is a valuable resource for people in acute mental health settings. Music therapists work with patients and use music to increase emotional expression and regulation, develop healthy coping skills, and increase self-esteem, to name a few goal areas (AMTA, n.d.).
But the positive effects of music therapy on mental health doesn’t stop there. If it did, then every person outside of acute mental health situations would only work on non-mental health goal areas in music therapy. The impact of music therapy on mental health goes beyond acute mental health settings, beyond the buildings, and into homes.
Dimensions of Wellness
Mental health and physical health are often kept isolated in two separate categories of wellness. Yet wellness is the integration of multiple dimensions of health such as emotional, physical, social, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, environmental, and financial dimensions (CSU Pueblo, n.d.). Each of these domains are mutually codependent. When one of these areas is neglected over time, it will adversely impact a person’s overall health and well-being (CSU Pueblo, n.d.).
Music therapy involves a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) using evidence-based music methods to address multiple dimensions of wellness, often but not limited to: a person’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs (AMTA, n.d.).
Disabled people may receive music therapy and other services through IEPs and state waiver programs. Most often, the goals in these services are related to independent living, which may include physical and occupational goals (Powers et al., 2005). While mental health is harder to see and measure than physical and occupational domains, that doesn’t make addressing it any less important. According to a CDC study (2020), “disabled adults report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as nondisabled adults.”
When a person’s mental health is neglected, then their overall health and well-being is impacted. It is essential that music therapy address multiple domains of wellness, including mental health, for disabled people.
Sample mental health interventions
But how? Here are some sample mental health objectives and interventions used in home health music therapy sessions for disabled people:
Lyric analysis: During lyric analysis, a client listens to a song and engages in a discussion about the circumstances that the singer may be experiencing and the feelings they may have. The objective for the client could be to improve emotion identification by identifying the emotion expressed in the song lyrics, finding lyrical evidence, and relating the situation back to their own life. Through this intervention, the client not only works toward improving emotional identification but also drawing a connection back to their own personal experiences.
Emotion song: A song about emotions can involve visuals and hypothetical situations to help a client identify emotions in a certain situation and the facial expressions associated with that emotion. Clients work towards not only identifying emotions related to the situations, but also nonverbal expressions of that emotion.
Check-ins: Music therapists can check-in with clients to reflect how the client may be feeling and encourage a moment of self-reflection. This may look like asking a verbal question in between interventions to practice the skill of self-regulation and emotion/sensation identification in self.
Identify strengths: Music therapy often addresses multiple domain areas for a client throughout a session. When a music therapist creates space in sessions for the client to identify their strengths and what they’re proud of during the session, this can increase the client’s self-esteem and positive view of self.
Disability affects all of us. Up to 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some type of disability (CDC, 2023). That means that every fourth person you meet is disabled. How could we ignore the mental health needs of every fourth person we met? Furthermore, if you think about it, all of us are only temporarily abled. If we live long enough, we will all become disabled (Piepzna-Samarasinha, as quoted by Small, 2019).
Music therapy must go beyond acute mental health settings because mental health itself goes beyond those acute settings. Every person has mental health needs. Every disabled person has mental health needs. Music therapy creates a space to value all dimensions of wellness for all people.
What’s your story? What are some ways you’ve seen music therapy impact your mental health or your client’s mental health? Let us know in the comments!
Music Therapy Intern
American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.). About music therapy and AMTA. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Disability impacts all of us. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). The mental health of people with
disabilities. Retrieved from
Colorado State University Pueblo (n.d.). 8 dimensions of well-being. Retrieved from
Powers, K. M., Gil-Kashiwabara, E., Geenen, S. J., Powers, L. E., & al, e. (2005). Mandates and
effective transition planning practices reflected in IEPs. Career Development for
Exceptional Individuals, 28(1), 47-59.
Small, S. (2019, February 21). Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha gives talk for “those typically kept on the fringes of society”. The Michigan Daily. Retrieved from https://www.michigandaily.com/campus-life/leah-lakshmi-piepzna-samarasinha-gives-talk-for-those-typically-kept-on-the-fringes-of-society/
Stoewen D. L. (2017). Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue vétérinaire canadienne, 58(8), 861–862. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508938/