One of the goals of addiction treatment is to teach patients to manage trauma and process their emotions in positive ways. Helping patients enhance personal expression by creating their own music is one tool that treatment centers are increasingly using to make better connections.
Wesley Geer, founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Rock to Recovery, has been a professional musician for more than 20 years as the former guitarist for the rock band Korn. He brings the program to treatment centers, where clinicians and musicians offer patients, with or without music experience, the opportunity to create songs.
“What we've seen with our program is that music plays a huge part in opening up clients quickly, getting them engaged,” Geer says. “It provides an immediate offset and release for all the emotions they are dealing with.”
He says the energy of writing music surpasses the other energies created by thought like anxiety, depression and cravings, by helping alter brain chemistry naturally.
“We know this to be scientific fact,” he says.
Music used in recovery treatment can enhance engagement and retention, according to an unpublished study by the Harvard University Recovery Research Institute of 78 clients in the Music For Recovery program. Music instills a sense of hope and increases client engagement and group cohesiveness, according to Kathy Moser, founder of Music For Recovery and music director for Daytop NJ treatment centers. Moser is also a consultant who has launched music programs at other addiction treatment centers.
“At Daytop NJ, where Music for Recovery is fully integrated with the clinical team, clients can process past trauma through songwriting. The insights revealed in the studio are fed back to the clinicians to further help the clients’ healing process,” Moser says.
Geer agrees that music and music therapy programs are more than just entertainment for clients.
“It's cathartic and clinically therapeutic,” Geer says. “Teaching music can be part of the solution, rather than just a dangerous trigger.”
The costs to start a music program can vary depending on the size and goals of the treatment center. Geer says he spent a few hundred dollars on instruments and was able to engage experienced musicians who are in recovery and want to give back.
“I created it with other professional musicians that had long-term sobriety and were very experienced and devoted to their 12-Step program of recovery,” he says. “As they say, 'One alcoholic talking to another.’ This gives us that unique connection, combined with professional musical experience.”
Anne Bradley, director of development at Daytop NJ, says that the cost and finding a way for music to fit into treatment programming were concerns initially.
“Our program began with a $25,000 budget taken from special-event fundraising efforts,” Bradley says. “The program is one day a week for now, and the long-term goal is to provide Music for Recovery five days a week. The estimated cost of five days a week is $125,000 a year.”
Moser says that lack of staff and hesitations about the effectiveness of this type of creative therapy were barriers in implementing the program.
“The most effective way is to create a musician/clinician partnership,” she says. “Many facilities we work with have people with musical background. Training these people to use their musical skills at their clinical job can reduce burnout and increase staff engagement.”
At Daytop NJ, clinicians use music as a complement to an overall treatment plan.
“Both musician and clinical staff are needed to provide this program, including a lot of coordination with the managing director and program staff,” Bradley says. “It’s a team approach where the teens are supported outside the Music for Recovery classroom time so they can make music and work on writing songs and performing.”
Musical and clinical staff
Having a staff member who understands both creative and clinical aspects of treatment is important to program development, says Darla DeLeon, NCRC, national interventionalist and recovery advocate for Recovery Unplugged Treatment Center, a residential treatment center with locations in Florida and Texas. DeLeon says that having singer/songwriter Richie Supa—who toured with rock giant Aerosmith—as the director of creative recovery adds to the authenticity of the program’s music and clinical emphasis.
“A large percentage of musicians are in recovery, but there are other qualifications needed to be effective in a clinical setting,” DeLeon says.
Supa has been able to leverage his relationships in the music industry to bring in top artists from all genres of music, including Steven Tyler, Flo Rida and Tommy Gunz, who have helped clients who aren’t as musically inclined to read and interpret song lyrics.
“They have to be able to teach, to listen and to get the messages across to clients,” DeLeon says.
She says the clinical and musical teams have roundtable meetings weekly to discuss clients’ progression and how therapies are resonating.
“We make sure we have a top line of clinicians, including a nurse practitioner, on staff because a lot of our patients have dual diagnoses,” she says.
Moser says music programs often include several elements from songwriting to recording to videos to sharing the final products.
“We focus on building recovery skills through the creative process rather than to process emotions or trying to elicit an emotional response,” she says. “The client always has access to a therapist should they need to process emotions.”
Geer adds that the therapeutic aspects of the program tie in topical discussions based on the fundamentals of the treatment program itself and how it can further clinical goals for each patient. For example, songs are uploaded to a music-sharing website, and the clients can listen, download or share the music with someone they care about.
“There are great stories about sending a song to Mom back at home, or even the parole officer. That is priceless,” he says.
Moser also says music created in the program and shared online has been played more than 10,000 times by clients after treatment.
“We recently rerecorded 12 songs written in workshops at our own cost and have given away almost 500 CDs to date,” she says.
Marketing and appeal
Potential patients might seek out treatment centers that offer music therapy if that’s something that appeals to them, so it can be leveraged as a marketing tool as well.
“Often, they bring their instrument with them into treatment or send for it once they realize the opportunity,” Geer says.
DeLeon says that former clients are the biggest source of referrals.
“Word of mouth is our biggest marketing tool. This is an experiential type of treatment, and a lot different from a lot of the treatment centers that are available,” she says, adding that the brand continues to grow—a new outpatient treatment center is slated to open in Philadelphia later this year.
Donna Marbury is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
Listen to recordings here