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Music and lyrics benefit recovery of Burnaby Centre for Mental Health + Addiction clients

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BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services shared stories to spread awareness on International Overdose Awareness Day. Read this story and others about the innovative programs in place to support clients in their treatment and recovery.

What is music therapy?
Music therapy is a form of therapy that uses music experiences and client–therapist relationships for the purpose of therapeutic change.

How does music therapy support a client’s mental health and recovery process? 
Perhaps in more ways than you’d imagine. Music therapists use music as an avenue that allows clients to cast their challenges into creative expression. A group of clients from the assessment and stabilization unit gather to write rap lyrics on a theme that is either derived from group consensus or introduced. One important theme lately has been the “root of addiction”. Because we combine counselling skills with creativity, clients reveal issues, strengths, symptoms and talents in artistic ways. Some people imagine that rap might be about glorifying drugs, but with careful support and questions, clients work towards lyrics that are about themselves and what brought them to this point.

These lyrics offer an example:

I know what’s best for me
And that’s my rehabilitation and recovery
I don’t want to look at other people and what they have with jealousy
I want to be clean because life was so hard on the streets alone
Do you feel me? 
And I don’t want to be forever scarred,
I want to have a place that I call home.

Is it only for musical clients? 
Not really. There’s such a wide range of programs from lyric discussion to songwriting that most any client can engage in the process. There is inherent value in hearing the recording of a song you love just as you remember it, and the programs offered here make room for that while also providing opportunities for clients to make their own music if they are so inclined. In recording, the acceptance of one’s voice can be a tender process as clients discover their agency in singing a personally meaningful song. The recording process is often paralleled to making plans in life, in that life requires planning, structure, and creativity, as well a healthy dose of insight: What’s the song about? What beat goes well? Where does the chorus come in? If you give it a title, what would you call it? Where’s the story going? What happens next? Clients can choose to share completed projects with family and friends through social media.

For example, one client wrote about his brother’s suicide, worked through some of the feelings in the songwriting process, than recorded it to share with his family:

I look to the sky
It’s like you never did die
Makes me want to cry
I’ve developed the confidence to let go of the pain
Like I said, I’ve come a long way since then
But there won’t be a day I won’t forget about you
I’ll never let you go

So what exactly do you do?
There are two part-time music therapists at the BCMHA. We offer programs such as Songwriting, Rap & Recovery, Soundtrack of your Life (lyric discussion of personally meaningful songs), Music as a Resource (exploring ways in which music can be a resource during recovery and supporting clients in accessing that music), Recording Studio, beginner guitar, sing-alongs (with thoughtfully chosen songs aimed at supporting our specific clientele), the Zone (an expressive arts experience co-led with art therapy), Prayer group (co-led with Spiritual Care), relaxation and stress management, and more.

How do the clients feel about their experience with music therapy in recovery?
A former client at the BCMHA who was very engaged in the music therapy programming put his experience down on paper while he was here and gave his consent to share his writing.

From “Hurt” to “Hallelujah”: Process and Progress in Music Therapy

According to Carl Jung some of our most precious and extraordinary gifts lie in the shadow of our unconscious, devoid of expression. They may be utterly unknown to us, or we may have banished them there for our own reasons. I had no notion of this when, as a new BCMHA client in 2014, I first wandered downstairs to listen to others sing karaoke. 

Music and song held the power to move me but addiction had sickened my mind, body, and heart. One by one, other clients sang, then one of the music therapist, Shannon, asked me if I’d like to pick a song. The previous client had sung Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, and as that seemed to be an apt choice in the moment I sang it again. Like a siphon the song sucked the hurt from my heart, infusing the sorrowful words with my pain, and I struggled to finish, my throat constricting and my eyes stinging. And so began a therapeutic journey of recovery and discovery, at once risky and rewarding, filled with laughter, joy, weeping, and healing. Having been resurrected from the shadow, musical expression began weaving healing chords from my heart, through my heart, of my heart, to my heart. 

Music therapy takes many forms at BCMHA: Less formal groups such as Music as a Resource, Music for Stress Management, and Sing Along, to Exploring the Zone, incorporating various media -including music- as a therapeutic tool. Additionally there is a music room accessible to clients to practice guitar or drums in solitude. Soundtrack of Your Life, perhaps my favourite, allows participants to connect meaningfully – through song – with times and stages of their lives. During my recent stay, I had confidence enough to step out and take beginner and intermediate guitar lessons – a new and challenging venture. Karaoke though, tops my list of favourite groups. What all these music therapy groups have in common is an opportunity for musical self-expression, which by its nature can bring healing to the sick and addicted heart and mind. 

Midway through my second stay at BCMHA, I signed up for recording studio, which is offered twice weekly. I had heard the commotion of others laying down rap beats, but I had something milder and “Gentle on My Mind” became the first song I recorded, singing vocals over a soundtrack Shannon found. It was daunting to sing into a microphone knowing everything, mistakes and all, was being recorded. Being vulnerable, I experienced significant emotions of self-loathing and shame. It was difficult to listen to my own voice, but Shannon set me at ease, assuring me that it was all part of the process and everything was great. Each time I listened, I noticed my tentative vocals, and of itself my confidence (and my voice) grew. I was so pleased with the finished product, and I began to experience compassion for myself whenever I heard the recording. 

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen was an intuitive next project, being such a profound piece of music and poetry. I broke down crying when we found the right key for me to sing it in. Many sessions came and went with a music therapist-in-training adding her keyboard expertise, Shannon on electric and acoustic guitar, and both together singing angelic harmonies. There were little setbacks and frustrations during the process, but lots of laughter and joy too. Turns out we were all perfectionists! Both therapists drew on their cumulative experience and brought the project to a non- linear completion. I felt a thrill each time I arrived and left feeling richer after the session ended. The precious gift of musical expression, long supressed in my unconscious shadow, had been stirred to life and brought forth painfully yielding a beautiful transformation: a glow in my healing heart, and a sense of wonder and rightness in my world. I remain exceedingly thankful for my experience with music therapy at BCMHA.

Erkkilä, J., Punkanen, M., Facher, J., Ala-Ruona, E., Pöntiö, I., Tervaniemi, M., . . . Gold, C. (2011). Individual music therapy for depression: Randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 132-139. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085431

The article cites the original source of the quote, which appeared in:
Gold, C., Solli, H. P., Krueger, K. R., & Lie, S. (2009). Dose-response relationship in music therapy for people with serious mental disorders: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 193-207. 
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