Hawaii Youth Symphony

Mental Health and Music Education: The Perfect Harmony

As Mental Health Awareness Month approaches, it’s important that we highlight the ways that music education promotes positive mental health in children. Not only does it provide an outlet for self-expression, but research has also demonstrated that music education can have a tremendous impact on the mental wellness of children and young adults.

Why Does Mental Health Matter to Us?

As a youth organization serving elementary, middle, and high school students, we seek to give our students the tools to live a happy, healthy life. Our programs not only teach music, but provide a village of support- incredible adult mentors and a community of peers who share their interests. 

Our programs bring students from different schools together to work toward a common goal, which can be quite profound for a student who may be struggling to find friends at their school. They also reach youth at a critical age: pre-teens and teenagers may be finding out that they suffer from mental illnesses for the first time, while also struggling to find their sense of self and grappling with increased expectations in school and beyond. Making music can help youth express these emotions in a healthy way.

Learning to play music helps them feel confident in who they are, injects joy into their lives, and teaches them resilience and persistence in the face of adversity. 

Youth Mental Health Impacted by the Pandemic

In the wake of the pandemic, early childhood and adolescent mental health is at the forefront of healthcare needs. In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Isolation was extremely hard on our schoolchildren, and the switch to virtual schooling and activities disproportionately impacted youth of different socio-economic backgrounds.

In 2021, nearly one-third of students experienced poor mental health. It became more important than ever to create opportunities for youth to connect with their peers. Music is one of the best ways to do this, and we’re grateful that our students put so much into continuing to develop their passions.

 “Along with balancing schoolwork and the stress of remote learning, I also had to contend with the social isolation from my peers. The Combo was the one place where I was able to feel a sense of belonging, especially during the pandemic. It was where I could learn and connect with my friends through the world of jazz.” – David Cassens, HYS Class of 2022

Music Brings Joy and Support

Like our local schools, Hawaii Youth Symphony also pivoted to virtual music education during the pandemic instead of shutting down our programs. While not as effective as making music in person, the power of music could still be felt through the screen. HYS alumna and Punahou Music Club Co-President Erin Nishi went above and beyond to bring the joy of music to our islands’s kūpuna:

“During the pandemic, our club has continued to provide virtual and live Zoom outreach performances to hospitals and senior homes throughout the Hawaiian Islands. These positive musical experiences have helped me to recognize the connecting and healing powers of music, and to realize that music can improve lives and better the world.” – Erin Nishi, HYS Class of 2021

This healing power that music holds was felt by everyone in some way or another over the past few years. But even as lockdown ended and students returned to school in 2021 and 2022, youth mental health has continued to worsen as they had to catch up on lost time, re-learn how to navigate social dynamics, and contend with increased academic rigor after curriculums were modified during lockdown. 

“The prevalence of students dealing with mental health concerns has shot dramatically up. … They’ve experienced trauma over the past two years, and that’s coming out in the classroom,” says Hawaiʻi special education teacher Arnade-Colwill

As families and education systems recover, leaning into the arts is vital as we continue into 2023 and beyond. 

Music and Mental Health

Music provides a platform for creative expression and emotional well-being that has a lasting impact on young people and adults alike. The simple act of listening to music can help people relax, feel more connected to their emotions, and even increase their self-esteem. 

Listening to classical music can have an uplifting effect on mood and can even provide a sense of comfort in difficult times. Beyond that, studies have found that people who listen to music when feeling overwhelmed or anxious are better able to manage their emotions and cope with their problems, and also that classical music reduces depression symptoms in patients.

“Music is a source for healing and resilience for people of all ages. We are so fortunate to be able to live in a community where we can enjoy music performed passionately by young people. Coming together to see music inspiring our youth is truly reflective of the ways that music engenders an age-friendly community.” – Randy Wong, President & CEO of Hawaii Youth Symphony.

If just listening to music can have all these benefits, imagine the magic of creating this music with your peers. Kalani High School alumna Erin Matsushita put it so eloquently when she said:

“I witnessed my first HYS concert as an audience member and was blown away by the emotion that the music expressed. However, I’d never truly experienced the joys of performing with a large ensemble until my first concert with the HYS Concert Orchestra in 8th grade. The switch from audience member to performer was jarring; almost as jarring as the tsunami of applause that followed the final note of that concert and the resulting contentment that filled me. That beat before applause as silence swallows the resounding pitches of a concluding chord has become my favorite part of each performance.” – Erin Matsushita, HYS Class of 2021

Students tell us all the time that music is their therapy, their safe space to express themselves in ways that may be difficult to do through words alone. This can be especially helpful for those who may struggle to find a way to express their feelings in other ways. If you’ve ever eaten lunch in the music room, you know that it is often one of the most welcoming spaces to those who need a safe place.

Music, Social-emotional Development, and Early Childhood Mental Health

When kids engage in music, they learn how to work in teams, collaborate with others, and express themselves in creative ways. These are all key to a well-rounded education and to a mentally-healthy childhood.

“One of the most important parts about schooling is not only the education that is provided, but the concept of exploring self. Social-emotional learning (SEL) talks about self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. The arts have been proven to help students with the skills of understanding self, having discipline, knowing how to interact with others, and learning to find comfortability in vulnerable environments.” – M. Kutty, HYS Class of 2022

Early childhood mental health is not talked about enough. Being mentally healthy as a young child means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, as well as learning healthy social skills, and functioning well in their community. 

Starting kids off in music during their formative years can make a big difference toward a mentally healthy childhood and adolescence. Whether it’s bucket drumming, learning the violin, piano, ‘ukulele or their instrument of choice, the social-emotional skills they develop will take them far in life.

Music education leads to improved behavior, better self-esteem, and better communication skills. Music can also be used as a tool to help children express themselves emotionally and can provide a sense of empowerment.

How can we support our youth?

Seeking out opportunities like HYS where children can connect with others, become good at something they love, and have a safe place to express themselves is a great start. 

Equally important are having conversations around mental health at home, taking youth mental health seriously, and seeking additional support from a healthcare professional if needed.

Hawaiʻi Youth Mental Health Resources:

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