ABC's David Muir Names Music Therapists 'Persons of the Week'

Just last week, David Muir celebrated all music therapists as Persons of the Week on his ABC World News Tonight broadcast.
03/10/2015 01:46 pm ET Updated May 10, 2015

Just last week, David Muir celebrated all music therapists as Persons of the Week on his ABC World News Tonight broadcast. He highlighted the work of several music therapists around the country but focused primarily on that of Maegan Morrow, MT-BC, at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation and Research Hospital in Houston. Morrow, co-treating with several speech/language pathologists, helped Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in the process of regaining her speech following her traumatic brain injury that resulted from the tragic shooting in Tucson four years ago.

David Muir shared moving video footage of Giffords learning to say "I love you" again and singing more and more words, lines, and then verses of her preferred music, ranging from "Free Fallin'" to "Girls just Want to Have Fun" and "Maybe" from the musical Annie during music therapy sessions and then upon her return visit to the hospital last month. Giffords was quoted in People magazine as saying:

Music therapy was so important in the early stages of my recovery because it can help retrain different parts of your brain to form language centers in areas where they weren't before you were injured.

In November 2014 several members of the TIRR medical team received the Caring Heart Award from the Institute for Spirituality and Health in recognition of their part in Congresswoman Giffords' rehabilitation. Maegan Morrow, one of the hospital staff accepting the award, expressed the entire team's sentiments when she remarked from the podium to Gabby and her husband, Mark Kelly, that "Gabby's healing process brought attention and awareness to the world of Traumatic Brain Injury" and that "helping Gabby regain her voice, in return, gave Music Therapy a voice." Her recovery gave the world a powerful glimpse into the important contributions of music therapy treatment in medical settings.

In addition to air time in news media, recently music therapy has been portrayed in novels, such as Jodi Picoult's Sing You Home (Atria Books) and Allison Pearson's I Think I Love You (Alfred A. Knopf), and movies like The Music Never Stopped, based on The Last Hippie, a true story by Oliver Sacks.

Now music therapy moves into a TV series! Jennifer Hudson made her first appearance in the "teaser" for this week's episode of Empire, portraying a music therapist assisting Trai Byers' character, Andre, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal in the Fox series, said the music therapist "starts to get to the core of Andre and really bring him out of his shell to truly become who he is."

The question arises as to whether music therapist Michelle White (Hudson's character) is a "real" music therapist with appropriate education and credentials. Assuming she is, will she engage Andre in the therapeutic process? Will she elicit contributions from him as the treatment progresses? Will they make music together? Will she collaborate with Andre's psychiatrist and the other professionals on his interdisciplinary team? Will she apply conclusions drawn in music therapy research to her own practice in the hospital where she is treating Andre? These are just a small sampling of the myriad skills and competencies a Board Certified Music Therapist utilizes on a daily basis. Music therapists are part of a professional association, the American Music Therapy Association, with a mission to advance public awareness of the benefits of music therapy and increase access to quality music therapy services in a rapidly changing world.

Andre has bipolar disorder, a mental illness. Mental illness is a really big issue in today's society. In a given year in the U.S. approximately 1 in 5 adults -- 43.7 million, or 18.6 percent -- experiences mental illness and approximately 1 in 20 adults -- 13.6 million, or 4.1 percent -- experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Mood disorders, among them major depression and bipolar disorder, Andre's diagnosis, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for those aged 18-44.

So, how can music therapy impact Andre's life and the lives of others with mental illnesses? According to an AMTA Fact Sheet, "Music therapy for clients with mental health concerns uses musical interaction as a means of communication and expression," with the aim of therapy to "help individuals develop relationships and address issues they may not be able to address using words alone." Music therapists work in a variety of settings, such as psychiatric treatment centers, outpatient clinics, community mental health centers, substance abuse programs, group homes, rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, and hospitals.

Michael Silverman, in a 2007 descriptive analysis of trends in psychiatric music therapy, noted that music therapists predominantly indicated they addressed goal areas such as socialization, communication, self-esteem, coping skills, and stress reduction/management for clients with mental illness. They utilized a variety of music therapy techniques such as music assisted relaxation, improvisation, songwriting, lyric analysis and music and movement to address clients' objectives, primarily working in groups.

Part of what music therapists do is conduct research to substantiate and support our work. Here are a few additional examples of music therapy research with individuals with mental health issues:

Shannon de l'Etoile (2002) reported that in music therapy groups in a day treatment program for those with chronic mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), six of nine symptom dimensions, including some linked to anxiety, improved from the baseline to the midpoint of her study.

In a Cochrane review, Christian Gold and colleagues (2005) concluded that music therapy as an addition to standard care helps those with schizophrenia improve their global state, and, if enough music therapy sessions are provided, the treatment may also improve mental state and functioning.

Denise Grocke and colleagues (2009) found that following weekly group music therapy sessions for individuals with severe and enduring mental illness, five items on a quality of life scale changed significantly, particularly indicating better general quality of life, health and support from friends. They also noted improvement in regard to physical pain and opportunities for leisure. Furthermore, focus groups with these participants yielded qualitative themes including music therapy giving joy and pleasure, recognition that working as team was beneficial, surprise in regard to their own creativity and pride in their song creations.

Hopefully Jennifer Hudson will give music therapy in support of mental health an educated voice.

To learn more about mental illness and support for those who live with it go to NAMI.org. To find a music therapist or get more information about music therapy for yourself or someone you know, contact the AMTA.

Selected References:

De l'Etoile, S. (2002). The effectiveness of music therapy in group psychotherapy for adults with mental illness. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 29, 69-78.

Gold, C., Heldal, T. O., Dahle, T., & Wigram, T. (2005). Music therapy for schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like illness. The Cochrane Collaboration. Issue 2: John Wiley.

Grocke, D., Bloch, S., Castle, D. (2009). The effect of group music therapy on quality of life for participants living with a severe and enduring mental illness. Journal of Music Therapy, 46 (2), 90-104.

Silverman, M. J. (2007). Evaluating current trends in psychiatric music therapy: A descriptive analysis. Journal of Music Therapy, 44 (4), 388-414.