How Music Therapy Can Help Veterans Heal

Healing Dark Wounds With Joyful Noise

The residual effects of spending time in combat are well-known. Former soldiers may come home with anything as small as cuts and bruises to permanent injuries, like paralysis. Perhaps an even more common illness(es) associated with post-war life is that of the mind. While other well-established treatment options like psychotherapy and psychotropic medications are available, alternative options like music therapy can be a great addition! 

Two veterans with lots of medals
The work army vets have done for our country is immeasurable. They deserve the best chance at happiness they can get. Luckily there are new options coming alongside what’s already available. Image courtesy of Carmen Attal via Pexels.

War Doesn’t End on the Battlefield 

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (more commonly known as PTSD) has likely existed as long as we have, but our social understanding of it began with war. Coming into public consciousness in the mid-1940s after World War II, observable symptoms like mood swings, flashbacks, and nervousness earned themselves household names, like ‘Veteran’s Heart’ or ‘Shellshock.’

But the benevolent nicknames don’t account for how debilitating it can be. Living with PTSD feels like the war is happening all over again--in reality and in the mind. Somebody with that caliber of trauma might also acquire other mental illnesses along the way. 

Some might include--

  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Substance Abuse 
  • Relational Difficulties

Any combination of these would feel isolating to a person that’s experienced trauma, but war is unique because it’s difficult to understand unless you’ve experienced it. Even so, the majority of soldiers who come home from overseas conflict do go on to develop PTSD, along with any of the listed co-occurring mental illnesses.

Music therapy in nursing home
Music Therapy is available in different settings--hospitals, nursing homes, private practice, you name it! And with its growing reputation, finding resources is simple. Many times, VA hospitals provide group sessions. If it’s not already provided, all it takes to find the right therapist for you is a type and a click! Image courtesy of iStock.

What’s Out There?

Even though war makes it difficult to go about the business of life, there are treatment options out there! 

Popular treatment for trauma sufferers are intensive psychotherapy partnered up with specialized trauma therapy and medication. Psychotherapy is certainly necessary and cathartic, but alternative therapy options are coming into view.

One of those options is Music Therapy.

What Is It?

Music therapy has been around since the 1940s but is only now gaining more visibility. In the aftermath of the war, music therapy was used in hospitals in addition to other modes of treatment, like occupational and physical therapy to make physical healing processes easier. 

There are no set rules or protocols for what happens during a session. With a music therapist, those seeking treatment might work on composing a song, learning to play an instrument, or even just listening.

That sounds similar to music class, so what’s the difference? 

The goal of music education is to learn to play or compose with the intention of learning a new skill and honing in on the craft. A passion for playing music for the sake of it can come out of music therapy, but that isn’t its core motivation. What sets music therapy apart from music education is that it aims to help manage neurological and psychological disabilities and illnesses.

Some of its benefits are--

  • Aiding in physical rehabilitation
  • Providing alternative modes of communicating difficult feelings
  • Motivating clients to be active participants in treatment plans
  • Soothing patients in emotional distress
  • Reducing stress 

Three smiling veterans
Creative outlets are known to be healing. Music Therapy can help veterans heal by using something that brings them joy while allowing them to find purpose. Image courtesy of Craig Adderley via Pexels.

How Does Music Therapy Help Veterans?

Veterans who display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder along with other mental health diagnoses (i.e. depression), may do particularly well with music therapy. Veterans often report feeling isolated in their experience because of its charged nature. 

Since trauma can be so difficult to talk about, music therapy, which doesn’t resemble talk therapy, might offer a great reprieve. Veterans can bypass talking about their memories before they’re ready to process them verbally. Another option would be to offset the challenges of psychotherapy with a lighter intervention that doesn’t feel like one. 

Some of the processes involved with music therapy can serve more than one function. A study conducted in 2010 shows just that.

Over a six week period, veterans participated in an intensive course of guitar lessons with seasoned professionals at a veteran’s medical center. The goal of the program was to markedly mitigate PTSD symptoms--anger management, sleep disturbance, difficulty relating to others, etc. The results were said to be ‘compelling,’ yielding positive results. Researchers did observe a twenty-one percent diminishment of symptoms in the participants. While the study was said to not be big enough to make blanket claims on the effectiveness of music therapy, it’s hard to ignore the data. 

Along with the reduction of residual hardships associated with PTSD and depression, veterans gained a skill in the process. That skill has the potential to become a source of meaning and connection, not only with other musicians but for veterans themselves. 

One of the most honorable things a person can do for their country can lead to an ongoing inner-storm. When things start to feel hectic, there are options available that carry us through even the darkest times. Music therapy has the ability to help us speak when words fail and bring us joy in the most unexpected moments. If you or someone you know has come home from combat and is in need of support, visit us here at Incadence. 

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 19, 2021

Brooke Barash
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