Classical music is a lifeline to mental health

Editor's note: This essay was originally published on as part of Minnesota Public Radio’s Call to Mind initiative. It is the first in a three-part series and republished here with permission.

By Steve Seel

Mental health and music touch all of us — so why is the former still so hard to talk about?

This month, I'm sharing how music is one of the greatest resources we have in sustaining — or mending — our personal mental health. And as a classical music on-air host, surrounded by amazing and profound music on a daily basis, I feel like I'm in a unique position to understand this.

May is Mental Health Month, and the subject of music as a lifelong therapeutic companion seems appropriate. But first, here's where I'm coming from.

I've been in therapy for 23 years. These days, this is not an unusual admission for a person to make. However, it's still very, very hard for me to state. Why would that be? Isn't this a different world now, where we're not ashamed of anything anymore?

If you've ever had cause to talk about your own experience in therapy but instead you've stopped yourself, you probably already know the answer. Despite the great leaps we've made as a culture in destigmatizing mental-health issues, plenty of misinformation and judgment remain. I feel it acutely as a so-called public figure. (As much as a public-radio host is a public figure — but also, being in such a buttoned-down business like public radio means there's additional self-generated pressure to maintain the "brand" of being friendly, safe and oh-so-together. In that way, it's not so different from, well, most professions in the world.)

Second, it's a tricky subject because talking publicly about my mental health draws my family into that public picture by implication — and they didn't ask for that. They deserve their privacy, and yet, my talking about my mental health by its very nature causes the public's collective camera-eye to make that jump-cut to members of my family for the "reaction shot." It's not fair to them. (Just to be clear, most of them support my public sharing.)

Finally, most of us with significant depression or other mental-health issues always fear that we are appearing to "excuse" our sometimes rocky life-record of interacting with the world by attributing our behaviors to something we have "no control" over. We fear people will think we're saying, "Sorry, but this is just the way I am."

Believe me: We are extremely aware of the way our challenges have affected our loved ones and friends — in ways big and small — and we are horrified when we suspect (or worse, are told directly) that others think we expect to be coddled. To the contrary, we desperately wish some of our behaviors in life had been different. But all we can do is get up each morning, take better care of ourselves and those we love, and continue to try to be the healthiest we can be.

So, yes, I feel lots of conflict when writing about this — but I'm going to do it anyway, because while those three reasons are always present, they're continually at odds with my intense belief in smashing stigma. I'm a passionate crusader against the way shame is used in our culture to keep marginalized groups on the fringes — be they LGBTQ individuals, or those recovering from addiction issues, or anyone who would avoid speaking truth for fear of upsetting the oppressive customs of their environments. This kind of shame is one of the greatest emotional poisons in the world.

So with that as my orientation, I'm going to share a few thoughts over the next few weeks. Not as a therapy expert, but as a person who — just like millions of people, and perhaps you, too — believes that music can be a great tool in your arsenal as you nurture your mental health.

(That was uncomfortable! But I got through it. I'm going to go listen to one of my favorite "decompressing" pieces now, which almost never fails to lower my blood pressure by about 10 points: Maurice Ravel's "Valley of the Bells" from Miroirs. See if it doesn't have a similar effect on you.)

Steve Seel is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio. He possesses a broad knowledge of many musical genres, having hosted radio programs ranging from classical to jazz and even avant-garde music at public radio stations around the country.

Photos by Vienna Reyes (top) and Albert Péntek (mid-page) on Unsplash.