Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness Through Music

An orchestra in which all the musicians are dealing with mental health issues is working to harness the healing power of music.

When Ronald Braunstein conducts an orchestra, there’s no sign of his bipolar disorder. He’s confident and happy.

Music isn’t his only medicine, but its healing power is potent. Scientific research has shown that music helps fight depression, lower blood pressure and reduce pain.

The National Institutes of Health has a partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts called Sound Health: Music and the Mind, to expand on the links between music and mental health. It explores how listening to, performing or creating music involves brain circuitry that can be harnessed to improve health and well-being.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said: “We’re bringing neuroscientists together with musicians to speak each other’s language. Mental health conditions are among those areas we’d like to see studied.”

Mr. Braunstein, 63, has experienced the benefits of music for his own mental health and set out to bring them to others by founding orchestras in which the performers are all people affected by mental illness.

Upon graduating from the Juilliard School in his early 20s, he entered a summer program at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria, and in 1979 became the first American to win the prestigious Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin.

His career took off. He worked with orchestras in Europe, Israel, Australia and Tokyo. At the time, he didn’t have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

But looking back, he can see that his disorder contributed to his success, and his talent masked the condition.

“The unbelievable mania I experienced helped me win the Karajan,” he said. “I learned repertoire fast. I studied through the night and wouldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat because if I did, it would take away my edge.”

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