By Natasha Brewer, MT–BC
Programs like Project New Hope show what can be if we start to utilize creative therapy interventions more often.
There is something magical about Project New Hope Retreat. I know, I know. ‘Magical’ is by no means an accepted term in the music therapy community, but there is no better word to describe the overwhelming feeling of joy and inter-connectedness that one feels when they leave these retreats.
Before I try to capture the essence and spirit of a retreat, let me explain what Project New Hope is. Project New Hope’s motto is, “where veterans rebuild with honor.” The organization serves those who have served our country through programs and free retreats that utilize holistic interventions to help veterans develop a sense of hope and strength as they work through the various challenges that can arise within the military community. A typical retreat revolves around a theme (i.e., “Veterans with PTSD” or “Veterans with Sleep Disorders”) and provides therapeutic programming that addresses the needs of the retreat participants. The goal of these interventions is to help participants develop new coping strategies to aid in their pursuits of wellness.
The retreat in April focused on veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a “signature wound” of combat that presents with symptoms of re-experiencing, hyper-vigilance, and avoidance. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD likely impacts 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20% of veterans of the war in Iraq (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, August 2015). Going back to the Vietnam era, PTSD likely impacts 31% of Vietnam veterans. These statistics are made more sobering when you consider that veterans are 41-61% more likely to commit suicide than civilians (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, June 2015). To confound things further, a persistent stigma exists within the military community toward receiving treatment for mental health issues. As a military brat (a term of endearment for children of military personnel), I have personally witnessed this stigma when discussing my experiences facilitating music therapy in mental health facilities with my family. Mental health issues are perceived as a sign of weakness. When you consider that an individual with PTSD is likely to experience avoidance symptoms and then you add the stigma and lack of understanding one may face from peers and superiors, it is clear why many veterans don’t seek the help they need.
That being said, I opened this narrative by using the non-scientific, non-quantifiable term, ‘magical.’ So what is so magical about facilitating music therapy at Project New Hope? I had the privilege to run the music therapy session at the April retreat with assistance from students from the Berklee College of Music. Typically, one would expect a group of veterans with PTSD to be quiet and wary of participating in an active drum circle and songwriting activity. But within minutes, participants were exploring the percussion instruments provided and making music. These individuals who fight hard against avoidance symptoms were volunteering to take drum solos and share their original blues compositions with the group. Their written words expressed the discovery of a new hope lit within them from their time at the retreat. Groups of people labeled “disordered” by their diagnosis were anything but. They were capable. They were powerful. They were warriors.
The entire music session culminated into a group blues song writing activity where participants wrote about their overall experiences at the retreat. The group did not need prompting to express gratitude for their peers and for all that they had learned over the weekend. They emphasized that they felt supported and understood by everyone who attended the retreat.
While packing up the instruments, the Berklee students shared their surprise at the music group experience: “We learned that veterans don’t really talk about their emotions easily… This group was nothing like that! They were so expressive!” And they are right: these groups are nothing like what you learn to expect because programs like Project New Hope show what can be if we start to utilize creative therapy interventions more often to reach those who feel like they cannot ask for help. We need these programs to break down these barriers and lift up our veterans. It feels magical only because it isn’t as common as it should be. It feels magical because we participated in empowering individuals too often disenfranchised by society. It feels ‘magical’, but it shouldn’t; it should be ‘expected’. I hope you agree.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. August 13, 2015. PTSD: National center for PTSD. Retrieved May 26, 2016, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. June 3, 2015. Suicide risk and risk of death among recent veterans. Retrieved May 26, 2016, from http://www.publichealth.va.gov/epidemiology/studies/suicide-risk-death-risk-recent-veterans.asp