Hip Hop's Promising New Role In Troubled Youth Therapy

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MEEK MILL
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29: Meek Mill performs onstage at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on September 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BET) | Rick Diamond via Getty Images
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A growing body of research suggests that those who live in violence-stricken communities are subject to post-traumatic stress and PTSD at rates higher than the rest of the country.

One creative antidote to this unfortunate reality may be found, perhaps not surprisingly, in the music that emerged alongside the culture of the inner city: hip hop.

Cendrine Robinson, a clinical psychology student at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, recently published an article, "Dream & nightmares: What hip-hop can teach us about Black youth," in American Psychological Association's newsletter, In the Public Interest. In her article, Robinson discusses her experience using hip hop to counsel at-risk youth.

From counseling teenage girls about HIV prevention, to helping young men on probation and Iraq war veterans, Robinson said that the inclusion of hip hop music helps to start a dialogue between client and therapist through a vocabulary and framework comfortable for both.

Robinson writes, "Hip hop therapy has elements of expressive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Hip hop music is utilized to engage clients in treatment by helping establish rapport with the therapist. Music can also help clients identify emotions and reframe cognition."

Artists like Chief Keef, Meek Mill and Rick Ross now populate Robinson's Pandora stations, because they are the artists the majority of her clients are listening to. She has found Meek Mill particularly helpful in this respect, especially his song "Traumatized."

In an interview with The Fader, Meek Mill said about Robinson's research, "That's what I make the music for, to be able to touch people. Even if you didn't come from the hood. You don't have to be from the streets."

As Robinson says in her article, "If we listen carefully, we may be able to find better solutions to address the pervasive violence in our community."

cendrine robinson

Robinson spoke with The Huffington Post about her confidence in hip hop therapy:

Did you always feel passionate about this kind of work? How did you get involved with hip hop therapy?

I've always had an interest working with adolescents. It's something I had experience with as a research assistant at the University of Illinois in Chicago. We incorporated music into our work with teen girls and their moms at an HIV prevention program -- this was seven or eight years ago. We had them them play their ringtones, we talked about what they were waking up to, what they heard every day on the radio and what effect it had on their self-esteem and relationships. I wasn't aware at that time that I was going to be able to use it in a formal, clinical way. I was lucky that was something my supervisor was familiar with at the D.C. Superior Court.

I'm originally from Chicago. Obviously there's been a lot of attention on the gun violence there. I'm hoping that this is something that will begin to be used to help that population in particular. I think that people are quick to judge that it's "just black kids killing black kids," as opposed to children who have experienced trauma themselves. Something I tried to argue in the article, is that you see this cycle of violence and trauma because these kids are more likely to commit these crimes.

Where do you stand on the PTSD v. PTS terminology debate? Do you think that any experience of post-traumatic stress necessitates the designation of a "disorder"?

I think that it comes down to a question of someone experiencing post-traumatic symptoms for a short period of time versus someone who has a chronic experience of post-traumatic symptoms for at least six months -- because it's natural when you experience some kind of trauma to have a reaction to it. You're going to have an emotional reaction to a car crash or witnessing a violent crime. It's about the distinction that something that is chronically impairing your life.

What do you have to say to people who criticize the notoriously explicit artists you frequently use?

One of the things I learned [about] during the process of writing this article is the controversy over what kind of music people think should be used in therapy. On the XXL Facebook page, someone asked why would you use Meek Mill, saying, "There's no context there, there's nothing useful." But I strongly argue that you have to meet the client where they are -- if the client is listening to Meek Mill, then I can't say, "Well, today you're going to listen to Talib Kweli" or "You're going to listen to Common." You can't force anything on them. My approach in selecting songs is choosing what they're listening to. I've integrated Nas and Kanye West for clients that only listen to Meek Mill, Rick Ross and Chief Keef. That's part of the treatment for my approach, but you shouldn't do that in the beginning.

What about other genres of music?

I do think it's useful to to use other genres. Music in general is very emotive. One could definitely use R&B -- that's an obvious one. Maybe even country music.

What about other media forms?

Absolutely. While I was working with youth probation, we looked at hip hop reality TV shows and videos on YouTube. Most kinds of media can be useful in creating rich discussion with clients, to inform you about the client.

I had a client that watched a lot of shows like "Scared Straight," because he was curious what it would be like if he ended up going to jail. Just knowing that he watched it told me that this client had some anxiety about where he could land at the end of probation if he didn't straighten up. I asked him, "How you do you feel about this upcoming court date?" and he said, "Oh, I'm fine." But if he's watching "Scared Straight" at home, there's something going on that's not going to come out in regular conversation.

Do you think there is value to studying hip hop music outside of direct conversations with clients? Can those who don't understand the music on so personal and literal a level learn from the genre?

Yes, the study of it is really important in terms of seeing how it trends with youth. For example, the types of drugs talked about can fuel research projects. Molly became a popular drug that appeared in a lot of songs, and you think if it's popular in music, maybe there's a lot of people using it right now. Music speaks to current trends, and so it helps us to understand current problems for youth, like substance abuse. It can certainly provide ideas for research, and also used as a kind of 101 in a counsel setting.

What is your vision for this type of therapy?

In an ideal world it would be integrated into the idea that psychology should be a culturally sensitive treatment. You're supposed to consider your client's culture when selecting the treatment for them. So for me, as a counselor who wants to get to know my clients, it would help me do that.

In writing this article, I'm trying to serve as an advocate for using hip hop in therapy. I'm moving to Chicago for a psychology internship, which is basically the final piece you need to prepare yourself to get licensed as a clinical psychologist. I'll be working at a Veterans Affairs hospital for one year, working as a therapist full time and hoping to integrate music into my treatment there, as well. There I will be doing work with post-traumatic stress disorder, not necessarily working with adolescents, but with younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is the biggest challenge hip hop therapy is currently facing?

In order to get widespread use, we have to demonstrate that this is an effective type of treatment. This is something I hope to do a formal research project with in the future, because if there is evidence that this is more effective than traditional cognitive therapy, or equally as effective, it can at least be an option. The formal use of hip hop in therapy came about in the early 2000s, so it's still very new. But hopefully in the coming years it'll gain popularity.

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