Arts Educators Have Parts to Play in Mental Health

Close-up of a piano keyboard with a child's hands on the keys and an adult's hands on either side of the child's

For as long as I can remember, music has played an integral part in my life. I took private piano lessons, but many of my fondest memories were in music classes at public schools. I started with recorder in third grade, then French horn in fourth- and fifth-grade band, and finally viola in sixth-grade orchestra. I continued playing through college. All these musical experiences opened an entire world of perspective, self-discipline, and wonderful friendships. 

Why am I talking about music on a blog about health? Because we have a national mental health crisis among children and youth, and we don’t have enough counselors to solve this problem in the clinic. We all need to be in the mental health business. 

Music and art courses at school are another avenue to address overall youth well-being in an accessible and equitable way. Courses can increase exposure to formal humanities education, which historically has mostly benefitted wealthier, white communities. 

Music, Art, and Mental Health: A Strong Link

Music and the arts have been linked to positive youth health outcomes, specifically for child development and mental health. Opportunities to engage in artistic experiences that encourage creativity and exploration allow young children to grow their cognitive, language, and emotional skills. Adolescents and young adults can also benefit in areas like emotion regulation and coping, relationship building, self-identity, and educational engagement.   

As described by the Arts Education Partnership and Education Commission of the States, arts education is critically embedded in the student wellness ecosystem. In the wake of COVID-19, teachers providing music, theater, and other art instruction supported their students with the social and emotional effects of the pandemic through movement and collaboration

However, researchers at George Mason University found that less than one-fourth of middle school students take a music class. Black students, students receiving special education, and those who were not proficient in English were less likely to participate in music classes, pointing to systems-level disparities. 

Yet there are programs working to make the arts accessible to children who have been left out. The Virtual Middle School Music Enrichment program, funded by the Fender Play Foundation, began in 2020 to provide a tuition-free, extracurricular experience in popular music education and virtual learning to youth from families with low incomes and those who typically do not join after-school activities. Efforts like these have contributed to the “democratization of music education.”

What’s Happening in Colorado?

Recent data from the Colorado Health Access Survey (CHAS) show that children are more likely to struggle with mental health as they get older. In 2023, 9.3% of children ages 5 to 9 experienced eight or more poor mental health days in the past month. That rate doubled to 18.9% for youth ages 10 to 14. And 22.7% of youth ages 15 to 18 reported poor mental health. Data on adolescents show that mental health trends have worsened over time. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the percentage of high school students who felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities during the past 12 months rose from 29.5% in 2015 to nearly 40% in 2021. 

Colorado schools provide mixed access to music and arts classes for their students.

The median teacher-to-student ratio was approximately seven music and art teachers per 1,000 students during the 2022-2023 school year. But it varies widely. Clusters in the east, southwest, and northwest regions of the state had more music and art teachers per 1,000 students. 

This map shows rural school districts often do a good job of keeping music and art teachers on staff. Many rural districts are small and underfunded. It’s encouraging to see so many of them prioritizing music and art instruction with their limited resources.

What’s Next?

Youth mental health needs are incredibly pertinent in Colorado, so we should think beyond clinical care. If we think creatively about the value of arts education, we can see art and music offer youth guidance and strategies to cope with the stress of navigating childhood and adolescence. While there are initiatives like the Virtual Middle School Music Enrichment program that address accessibility and equity challenges, public health officials have a key opportunity to acknowledge the impacts of prioritizing resources and funding for arts education programs in public school systems. When we see the value of arts education not just for what it teaches, but more importantly for its prevention value for mental health, we are one step closer to unlocking the door to a healthier, more equitable Colorado. 

Figure 1. Ratio of Music and Art Teachers to Students per 1,000 Students in Colorado, 2022-2023*
Click to expand.


*The data represented in this map combine a variety of art and music disciplines, such as music theory and art design, in preschool-grade 12 public schools. Also, it is likely for instructors to teach more than one discipline; they are counted per teaching subject area. Individuals are counted regardless of full-time employment hours. Missing data were counted as zero teacher headcount. 

Source: Colorado Department of Education

March 11-15 is Creative Arts Therapies Week. Learn more on the American Art Therapy Association website.