Opening Doors to New Experiences: Art & Music Therapy - MetroFamily Magazine
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Opening Doors to New Experiences: Art & Music Therapy

by Brooke Barnett

Reading Time: 6 minutes 

“When I was in middle school, I can quite literally say that art therapy saved my life.” Kendall Brown of Norman will assure you that these words are no exaggeration. For Kendall, life is now full with a budding career, service projects and seemingly limitless possibilities. But that wasn’t necessarily the case ten years ago, when art therapy helped her survive one of the most difficult times of her young life.

An Emotional Outlet

“At the end of my eighth grade year, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that affected my digestive tract,” Brown explains. “Before the Crohn’s Disease, I was a heavier girl, weighing about 160 pounds. Because of my illness, I [got] down to 92 pounds. Combine that with teenage angst and I was a pretty bitter eighth grader.” To make matters worse, a rumor began circulating around Brown’s school that her weight loss was because she was suffering from AIDS. “It was a lot to deal with,” Brown recalls. “I was a pretty depressed and suicidal teenager.”

For Brown, help came in the form of an art teacher who recognized her situation and saw an opportunity for art therapy to serve as an emotional outlet for the struggling middle school student. “She gave me a journal and some art supplies and explained the concept of visual journaling and art therapy.” Defined as a way to both visually and verbally express and record experiences, feelings and emotional reactions, visual journaling is a form of art therapy that uses images (ranging from simple sketches or doodles to complex drawings and mixed media creations) to gain access and insight into deeper feelings and intuitive knowledge.

The transition for Brown was not immediate. “At first, I thought it was stupid,” Brown recalls. “But eventually, having that journal helped me to become less angry and that was a big help as I worked to get my disease under control.”

The Benefits of Art Therapy

According to local artist Dana Helms, the type of outcome that Brown experienced is not unusual. “I stumbled into art therapy finishing a commercial arts degree,” Helms explains. “A young cousin of mine suffered a brain injury from a bicycle accident and used art therapy for about a year.”

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma or challenges in living or by those who seek personal insight and emotional development. The process of creating art can increase awareness of self, provide a coping mechanism for the symptoms of illness or trauma, enhance cognitive abilities and nurture an appreciation for the life-affirming value of art. Art therapy emerged as a profession in the 1940s, underscoring a growing recognition that creativity aids in recovery and overall wellness. As a mental health profession, art therapy is based on the belief that the creative process can help individuals manage a wide range of interpersonal problems while also building self-esteem and self-awareness. Art therapy works with traditional therapy options to treat issues including anxiety, depression, physical and mental disabilities and trauma and loss.

“My son was an ADHD (Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder) child, and I have ADD (Attention Defecit Disorder),” Helms said. “Art was the one thing we could both focus on. He loved anything anime or manga, so it was easy for me to use art to keep him focused.” In 2010, Helms began her professional career as “The Upside Down Artist,” where she has children recreate an inverted picture of a cartoon character. “I can look at the child’s drawing and see what is going on in their mind and what type of thinker they are. My husband calls me the ‘art whisperer’” Helms jokes. About a quarter of her students have special needs such as visual impairment, ADD, ADHD or autism. For Helms, the act of having the child draw upside down is crucial to the process. “It removes their recognition factor,” she explains. “For children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, they do not have any hesitations of ‘I can’t’ or ‘that’s too hard.” Then, she meets with clients weekly to work on a specific set of exercises and activities designed to strengthen concentration, lower stress levels, increase selfesteem, improve communication and help with school success.

“What it does for them is unbelievable,” Helms says. “I have one client who could barely speak when he first came to see me who now tells me all about his day in school and is working on his own full-scale book.”

The Benefits of Music Therapy

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy can be used to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and promote physical rehabilitation for all ages, and it is also helpful with individuals with special needs, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, and physical disabilities.

Music therapy can also benefit nonmusical areas of life, including communication skills and physical coordination. “Music therapy is not just teaching kids to enjoy music, but to use music as a tool to addresses non-musical goals” Jennifer Voss, MT-BC, a Board Certified Music Therapist in Norman, clarifies. When working with a client, music therapists use improvisation, receptive listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, performance, and music learning to advance the client’s individual goals. Despite common misperceptions, clients do not need to have any musical ability to benefit from the therapy. There is not one particular style of music that is more effective in a therapeutic environment, and the therapist will often use different types of music depending on the client’s goals.

Watching Voss in action, it’s apparent that her classes can be as fun as non-therapeutic classes, but there is more going on than just play. “It is all very purpose-driven and there is a therapeutic rationale for everything we do,” Voss said. “For example, we are not really just drumming, we are working on range of motion and reinforcing motor skills.” “Music therapy is a very engaging experience for the child,” Voss continues. “The question for parents, especially those with special needs children, is if your child responds differently when music is involved. Music can sometimes open the door to so many new experiences for the child. It is often that we see a child respond successfully to music therapy interventions when all other options have been exhausted.”

SWOSU’s Music Therapy Clinic

“As a clinician, the first time I saw a child with Downs Syndrome go from being completely non-verbal to saying ‘mama’ and witnessing the mother’s tears of joy, it made a huge difference to me,” said Dr Sophia Lee, MT-BC, Director of Music Therapy and Associate Professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) in Weatherford. “Successes with music therapy make everything worth it. It’s amazing how sensitive kids are to music.” Lee’s program is the only music therapy degree program in the state of Oklahoma. “The program gives college students the tools  and practical experience to know how to use music as an effective tool,” Lee explains. “Students leave the program knowing how to use music therapy in special education, mental health careers and more.” In addition to providing a strong theoretical background, the program provides hands-on, clinical experience for approximately 25 undergraduate majors through a Music Therapy Clinic.

For parents who feel that their child might benefit from music therapy, the SWOSU Music Therapy Clinic offers comprehensive assessments of a child’s communication, motor, emotional and social skills and can suggest a plan for treatment based on parental concerns and the child’s individual skill levels. “The earlier a child receives music therapy, the higher chance that the child will develop to the best of his ability,” Lee explains. “I have seen the miraculous effects of music therapy in kids as young as two or three years old.”

Music Therapy at The Children’s Center

The Children’s Center in Bethany is a pediatric medical rehabilitation facility for children with complex medical needs and physical disabilities. The Center provides physical, occupational, music, speech, respiratory, and pet therapies to children from birth to age 17. The Children’s Center employs two board-certified music therapists that work with children born with disabilities as well as those with accident-induced injuries, on both a short-term and long-term basis. “We often work in conjunction with physical therapists and occupational therapists and do a lot of co-treatment,” said therapist Jennifer Schafer, MT-BC. “We work with premature newborn babies in the NICU to help soothe them as they adjust to the normal environment and during feeding times. We also work with long-term patients, many of [whom] are nonverbal, to learn to make sounds purposefully and to improve their gross motor skills.”

The therapy provided by Schafer and her colleague Rachel Nowles seeks to improve their patient’s range of motion, fine motor skills, attention to detail and overall coordination. “Sometimes, they kind of forget that they are in therapy and they end up just having fun, and ultimately working harder.” said Nowles. For Shafer, it is the small steps forward that make music therapy worthwhile. “For me, the most rewarding thing is seeing them maximize their potential. They make progress very slowly, so we always take the time to celebrate,” Schafer adds.

Valuable Benefits

Both art and music therapy provide many long-term benefits for clients, but they often come at a cost. “While therapy can be challenging financially, there are ways to help make it more affordable,” Voss suggests. “Some school districts can add music therapy to a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the child can receive music therapy as part of the school day. Or, you can check with your private insurance to see what they might cover or reimburse.”

Regardless of costs, those affected by art and music therapy find lifelong benefits from the treatment. “Traditional journaling just never clicked for me,” Brown recollects. “After my art teacher intervened, it taught me that there was more than one form of communication and ways to express your emotions. I wish every child could be introduced to the concept of visual journaling so that they could benefit from art therapy as I have.”

For Lee, music therapy also provides valuable, life-affirming benefits for both the client and the therapist. “I’ve seen a child born without hands learn to tie a shoe with a prosthesis thanks to music therapy,” Lee recollects. “I’ve seen a child go from learning to pick up an instrument to learning to pick up a spoon and feed themselves. That’s my Kodak moment.”

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Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine.

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