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Creative process through music reinforces recovery for youths

August 17, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Music studio at Daytop New Jersey

To a young person in treatment whose life has been beset by trauma and substance misuse, the thought of summoning the patience and dedication needed to write song lyrics could easily overwhelm. The founder of Music for Recovery tries to convey in her work that this type of creative process offers a hands-on opportunity to practice skills that will benefit the individual in recovery.

Singer/songwriter Kathy Moser likens the effort to “midwifing” someone through the process of delivering a line to an original song, or learning the rudiments of a new instrument. “They ultimately see repetition, and slowing down, as something that serves them well, rather than as a punishment,” says Moser, a New Jersey-based musician in long-term recovery.

Moser, who has conducted songwriting workshops at numerous addiction treatment centers and is offering a full music therapy program at a handful of facilities, including Daytop New Jersey and Gosnold on Cape Cod, says the groups she works with build a shared musical experience from no predetermined road map. In this respect, the effort resembles the early recovery journey.

“We walk in with nothing—no lyrics, no genre—and the actions the group takes together determine the direction in which we want to go,” she says.

In June, Music for Recovery's efforts with Daytop were cited for excellence in addiction treatment by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, Inc.

Daytop's experience

Daytop introduced Music for Recovery into its northern New Jersey residential program for youths in Mendham a year ago, and will be extending it into its program covering the southern part of the state this fall. Erin Carrabba, principal of Daytop's recovery school for youths ages 13 to 18 (the Daytop New Jersey Academy at Mendham), says Moser performed for students at a school assembly several years ago, and her message that day was so positive that it got her to thinking about the benefits music could bring to young patients.

“We're becoming a trauma-informed care organization, and we're aware that repetitive motion and rhythm can be so important in recovering from traumatic events,” says Carrabba.

The youths at Daytop create songs and videos that they can access after treatment, and also receive instruction in playing an instrument. “Many of them have never had an opportunity to play,” Moser says. The young people are able to pursue some of their instruction through books, says Moser, who adds that practicing an instrument has been documented as an optimal strategy for improving brain connectivity.

Moser says any musical genre can generate benefits for participants. Carrabba indicates that since many of the young people in the Daytop program gravitate to hip-hop, the school emphasizes keeping the messages of the music positive.

Moser says many of the youths in the Daytop program have grown up in poverty, and “part of their poverty is the poverty of language.” She often will have a young person print out the lyrics to a favorite rap song and then cross out any obscene language or references to drugs or violence. In some cases, what's left is “not a lot,” she says. But the lesson here becomes one not of abandoning street talk, but adding another lingo to one's repertoire. “It's not helpful for me to say that where they came from is bad,” Moser says.

Carrabba says some musical performances were integrated into the academy's graduation ceremony this year, and some of the songs the youths have written have been powerful, moving accounts of their history.

She is now looking at implementing a full music curriculum at Daytop. The facility's clinicians also have an opportunity to accompany the youths to the Music for Recovery sessions.

On the most basic level, these experiences allow the youths to discover fun in sobriety. “It is an opportunity to experience joy,” Moser says.

Dynamics at work

In an attempt to quantify some of the dynamics of music therapy, nationally known researcher John F. Kelly, PhD, associate in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, collaborated on a survey instrument administered with Music for Recovery participants at two treatment organizations where Moser has introduced her program. Research staff developed a 10-item questionnaire that measured half a dozen group therapeutic factors both before and after participation in the program.

Among 78 individuals who completed both surveys, significant improvements in overall scores on the research team's Therapeutic Change Scale were reported, and improved scores on these four individual components were seen:

  • Catharsis, or the ability to express emotion better;

  • Cohesion, or a greater sense of community, trust and belonging;

  • Existential factors, or improvement in confidence and empowerment to make changes; and

  • Interpersonal learning, or patients' ability to learn from one another.

Daytop CEO Jim Curtin says he had taken note of the positive anecdotal feedback he had heard about music therapy in the past, but adds, “When I saw the Harvard research, that sealed the deal, if you will.”

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