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“Rap and Recovery” helps substance use clients envision a future

For substance use clients who see little hope for a better life, simply imagining what the future might hold is a challenge. Ask them to put their vision to a hip-hop beat, however, and something shifts.
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​"For them to write lyrics on a song topic like 'a year from now' helps them see a future, and to have plans," says Dr. Kevin Kirkland, an accredited music therapist. "That's part of recovery."  

Kirkland runs a program called Rap and Recovery at PHSA's Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. His clients inspired him to create the program six years ago.

"A lot of younger clients are really into rap," he says. "So, I was thinking, how can I bridge the two [rap and recovery]? Because at Burnaby Centre, we strive to be client-centred."

In groups, clients discuss how to have better mental health and how to stop using substances.

"The program is about the clients taking ownership of their recovery because they're directly involved in writing and thinking about their health," he says. "It's different than being told information. They have to think about what they're saying and how they're saying it. Clients engage in their recovery, think and talk about it, and rap about it. It's a medium that's both fun for them and challenging. It's amazing how many clients have musical skills."

Kirkland and his clients use the centre's music therapy recording studio to write and record MP3s so the clients have a product at the end of the process.

Rap is popular with clients for a variety of reasons, says Kirkland. Historically, he says, the genre has dealt with themes of social justice. Building upon the theme of empowerment along with the clients' desires and abilities with rap, it only made sense to offer a strengths-based approach to support their recovery process.

Using creative experiences

"Music therapy uses music and creative arts experiences along with the client-therapist relationship to bring about therapeutic change," he says. "The idea behind Rap and Recovery is to give clients life skills they can take with them afterwards. Their recordings can help them remember the times they were here, and how they did, and the words they said and what that meant to their lives."

Kirkland has been a music therapist for 30 years. When he's not at the Burnaby Centre, he teaches music therapy at Capilano University's music therapy undergraduate program. Along with Rap and Recovery, he and Shannon Nesbitt, another music therapist at Burnaby Centre, run a variety of music therapy groups. "We find that creative expression humanizes recovery," he says. " Sometimes the music therapy program is a buy-in to stay in recovery."

Kirkland shared an example of a client's rap lyrics using a fill-in-the-blank approach and "I" statements.

I am everything I hate

I wonder if it's a debate

I hear everything they state

I see drugs as escape

I want to change my fate

I am constantly in ruins

I pretend I know what I'm doing

I feel that I can change

I worry about my brain

I cry when I think about the pain

I am trying to see another way

I understand I might not see another day

I say what I better mean

I dream to be forever clean

I try to not think about the craving

I hope to not ever cave in

I am everything I love

Lyrics are quoted using informed consent.

Kirkland's interest in using rap to help clients recover has led him to write a paper called "Rap and Recovery: A Music Therapy Process-Oriented Intervention for Adults with Concurrent Disorders." Watch for it in the June publication of Approaches, an international peer-reviewed music therapy journal.

Listen to Kirkland talk about Rap and Recovery on Global News.

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