3 Things to Keep in Mind About Music Therapy in the Military

A close-up of the hands of a person playing an acoustic guitar

A close-up of the hands of a person playing an acoustic guitar

After more than a century of use in helping soldiers, music therapy for the military is being modernized and made more replicable with the help of a Drexel faculty member.

Joke Bradt, PhD, an associate professor in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, is part of a team that recently published a paper highlighting two music therapy programs being used to treat military service members. She hopes that shedding light on such successful programs leads to them being taken up more widely.

For the wounded, injured or ill in the military, music therapy is effective because it provides a way for them to nonverbally express thoughts they might not be willing — or able — to get across with words.

“Working with service members in the military health system comes with its unique challenges and opportunities,” said Bradt.

See the work Bradt’s Drexel colleague Girija Kaimal does with military service members in visual arts therapy.

Records of the medical use of music date all the way back to the post-World War I era. Interest in music therapy dramatically increased during World War II, when more than 500 music therapists were trained by the National Foundation of Musical Therapy.

That tradition continues today with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Forces Military Healing Arts Network. With programs based out of places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir, Creative Forces is a partnership between the NEA and the Department of Defense to better integrate creative arts therapies with treatment plans for U.S. military service members.

Bradt has researched and evaluate programs as a part of the program and, along with Hannah Bronson and Rebecca Vaudreuil, of Creative Forces, co-wrote the paper for Music Therapy Perspectives that points out programs currently functioning at both Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir.

Here are three intricacies that music therapists working with the military should keep in mind, according to Bradt.

  1. Moving In and Out

Due to the nature of the job, military service members are constantly on the move.

“One important challenge is the unpredictability of treatment length as these service members can be ordered to change duty stations or can be separated from the military with very limited notice. This poses a significant challenge for therapeutic planning.

As such, any music therapy plan in the military needs to be individualized and flexible for each person. That way, the treatment would be more transferrable to wherever they go and interruptions simply because of movement might be less likely.

  1. Traumatic Brain Injuries are Common

“The prevalence of traumatic brain injury combined with PTSD or other psychological health issues is much higher in the military population, so this certainly impacts treatment approach.”

What makes music therapy such a good option in this case is that past studies have shown that music plays an important role in increasing neuroplasticity — a term that refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and compensate for deficiencies in certain areas.

So after a blast injury that a military service member might experience, the connections between certain parts of the brain might be damaged. Music can help those connections reform because of its effect on multiple parts of the brain.

  1. Reluctance to Open Up

In the military, the volume of extraordinary experiences service members go through is often much higher than the typical population. As such, many push down their feelings as a coping mechanism.

“It may not be easy for service members to open up about their emotions and they may be quite reluctant to do so in regular, verbal therapy,” Bradt said. “However, through music, emotions and thoughts can be accessed and explored in different ways.”

In the program at Walter Reed, the service members work on writing songs with their therapists.

“The songs they write are very powerful and often speak to how deployment and the military has impacted their well-being,” said Bradt.

Media interested in speaking with Bradt should contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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