Music therapy in a mental health setting

Music therapy has been part of CHOC Children’s specialized therapeutic programming for more than 10 years. The program has grown recently, due to increased awareness of its effectiveness and a growing need among CHOC patients. We sat down with Kevin Budd, a board-certified music therapist in CHOC’s Mental Health Inpatient Center, to discuss the benefits of music therapy in an inpatient psychiatric setting.

Q: Music therapy is more than just listening to music. What encompasses this practice?

A: Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of musical interventions to accomplish individualized goals. This occurs within a therapeutic relationship between a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program, and a patient. During music therapy, we address physical, psychological, cognitive and/or social functioning challenges for patients of all ages. Essentially, we utilize evidence-based, musical interventions for non-musical outcomes; meaning music is the tool which helps support a patient’s non-musical need or goal.

Q: How does music therapy support clinical goals?

A: A patient’s clinical goal is the starting point for determining which musical intervention will be most effective. In the Center, these goals could include: mood regulation, self-expression, self-esteem, anxiety, interpersonal effectiveness, treatment motivation, positive coping skills, and more. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment when it comes to music therapy within mental health. We might work towards their goals several different ways, including: focused music listening, songwriting, song discussion, group instrument playing, music and relaxation, singing, and many others.

For example, if a patient’s clinical goal is to increase identification of positive coping skills, we might work on lyric analysis within the patient’s preferred style of song. We could discuss triggers, resilience, and negative life situations in the song. During this lyric analysis, I can help navigate the discussion to include the patient’s interpretation of the musician’s experience and how it might relate back to their own life. After this discussion, we could rewrite the chorus of the song including identification of a negative situation and a positive coping skill to help address it. The patients can then be encouraged to share what they created— by singing, spoken word, or other creative means.

Within this exercise, not only has the patient identified a negative situation and how to better cope with it within a creative medium, they have experienced the active utilization of a positive coping skill, built up confidence after completing and sharing their creation, felt more connected with others in the group due to being vulnerable and feeling validated, improved their mood from the positive experience, and formed a sense of increased treatment motivation.

Music therapists utilize assessment, treatment planning, and evaluation to determine whether a patient’s current methods of music therapy are meeting their needs. Without treatment goals, there could be no effective music therapy.

Q: What kind of impact have you seen in mental health patients who have participated in music therapy?

A: In any setting, music has an instantaneous effect on our bodies — mentally, physically and behaviorally.

Patients have shared several stories about how music therapy has helped them with their clinical goals. It’s amazing how one musical intervention can address multiple goals.

Sometimes it’s hard for patients to verbalize past trauma or express their current struggles. But with music therapy, they can discuss a song that may relate to their current life situation— whether that be bullying, family problems, feeling hopeless, having anxious thoughts, or another stressor. During this process, patients may be able to process and verbalize more, since the lyrics are an easier gateway for expression.

During group instrument playing, patients who might have difficulty with interpersonal relationships are able to cohesively and successfully play music together in a positive and supportive space without the need to talk.

During group ukulele playing, patients can work on distress tolerance and problem-solving skills while persevering through a challenging task — and by the end, they have improved self-esteem.

Q: What is unique about music therapy in an inpatient psychiatric facility?

A: Music therapy can look different in the inpatient psychiatric setting than in other areas of the hospital.

Within the Center, goals for music therapy are focused on combatting the reasons why a patient is admitted— these could include suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety or other factors that keep these youth from participating in a healthy way in daily life. The goal of the MHIC is to stabilize these patients and provide them with as many resources as possible to cope with their mental health challenges.

Music therapy does just that and provides opportunities for patients to learn, process, practice and discover new skills through tailored music interventions such as group instrument playing, songwriting, music listening, song discussion, beat-making, singing, rapping, and many other techniques. The MHIC offers opportunities for group work, that allows for a diverse group of kids and teens to come together and express themselves in a supportive, safe and validating environment. Individual music therapy sessions are available to patients in the Center who need additional one-on-one support to complement their other treatment.

Q: Why did you want to become a music therapist? Why a mental health setting specifically?

A: I’ve gone through my own mental health challenges throughout my life, and I always found that music validated my journey. Music helped me distract myself and process my feelings. Music met me where I was in the moment and gave me hope. It also gave me a platform to express myself in ways I didn’t know how to otherwise.

When considering career paths, I wanted to find a way to harness the role music had played in my life in a therapeutic way. After receiving my undergraduate degree in music, I developed a special interest where psychology and music intersect—the space where music therapy truly breathes. I pursued my graduate degree in music therapy, and then became a board-certified music therapist.

I feel humbled and fulfilled to be able to support kids and teens at CHOC with the tool of music. By creating an authentic therapeutic alliance, I can support them through a harsh and challenging time in their lives. I am thrilled to be on the front lines of the music therapy program at CHOC Children’s and I look forward to supporting its growth and success in treating pediatric patients.

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Olivia’s Journey with Music Therapy

Olivia was unexpectedly born two months premature and spent the first seven months of her life in the CHOC Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). During some moments of their extended NICU stay, her parents weren’t sure if they would ever get to take their baby girl home.

From the day she was born, Olivia had been exposed to a high level of stimulation in the hospital setting. Despite the NICU’s environment of healing, the beeping of machines, and steady flow of clinicians in and out of her room had overwhelmed Olivia and made her weary of physical touch.

“Even though the doctors and nurses were very gentle with her, and everything was done with her best interest in mind, it’s a natural outcome for someone who has spent their entire life thus far in a hospital to be apprehensive of physical touch,” says Leilani, Olivia’s mother.

The NICU’s developmental team quickly saw that Olivia would benefit from music therapy, and introduced Olivia’s family to Brie Mattioli, a board-certified music therapist at CHOC who specializes in the NICU setting.

Initial goals of music therapy for Olivia included pain management, learning how to self-soothe, and self-regulation. Once her pain improved, she could show more self-expression and even develop preferences for certain types of music. (Her favorite song is “Rise Up” by Andra Day.)

Sometimes Brie’s goal was to help Olivia get to sleep, which is healing. During other sessions, their goals were focused on development and stimulation.

The calming effects of music therapy was just what Olivia needed.

Afterall, she underwent her first in a series of surgeries when she was just 2 weeks old. During prenatal scans, doctors discovered that Olivia had enlarged kidneys, and at birth they discovered her stomach was enlarged as well. Surgery was a priority. Under the care of Dr. Peter Yu, pediatric general and thoracic surgeon, Olivia’s intestines were repaired. Another surgery, when Olivia was 2 months old, shortened her lengthy spinal cord.

Olivia also showed traits of Noonan Syndrome ― a rare genetic disorder that affects one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 people. Noonan Syndrome is commonly associated with physical characteristics like atypical facial characteristics and a short stature, and clinical symptoms like heart defects, bleeding problems, feeding issues, developmental delays and malformations of bones in the rib cage.  Although Olivia seemed to exhibit mild physical characteristics of the syndrome, she displayed prominent clinical symptoms.

While she underwent genetic testing for Noonan Syndrome, Olivia’s care team also indicated that she was a candidate for genomic sequencing, the process for determining someone’s complete DNA sequence. Through a partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital, some critically ill infants and children in CHOC’s intensive care units have access to rapid whole genome sequencing. The research collaborative intends to decrease the time between an acute diagnosis and the implementation of effective treatment for difficult-to-diagnose cases. Olivia was genetically tested as were her parents. Two weeks later, the results came in. Neither parent tested positive for Noonan Syndrome, but Olivia did. Since neither parent was a carrier, this meant that Olivia had a uniquely altered gene that resulted in the syndrome.

“When the results came back, we were in disbelief and grieving,” Leilani recalls. “The news was unexpected and heartbreaking. We had never heard of Noonan Syndrome and we had done most of the genetic testing offered during my pregnancy. Our baby was so innocent, and she didn’t ask for any of this. I found myself fast-forwarding to the future and wondered what life would look like for her.”

Music as a journey to healing

While in the hospital, Olivia saw Brie four times a week for music therapy. The more music therapy sessions Olivia had, the more relaxed she became in a sometimes-stressful hospital environment.

“When bodies are relaxed, they heal better,” Brie says. “More opportunities for relaxation mean more opportunities for healing, positive gains and progress.”

In addition to helping patients make progress towards clinical goals, music therapy can provide a sense of normalcy to families in the midst of an emotional time.

“Music promotes a sense of positivity and peace in the room,” Brie says. “It wasn’t the nursery they planned to bring their baby home to, but it provides a sense of normalcy to families.”

The practice resonated with Leilani, who had even considered pursuing a career in music therapy in college. While pregnant with Olivia, she would frequently play music, everything from Ed Sheeran to N*SYNC for her daughter.

“My pregnancy was difficult, and music had always been a form of therapy to me,” Leilani says.

When Olivia was discharged from the NICU, her parents were given a CD specially recorded by Brie with Olivia’s favorite music therapy songs so she could continue healing at home.

“No parent signs up to be in the hospital for all those months,” Leilani recalls. “But I am so happy that CHOC was there when we needed them. CHOC was the right place for Olivia.”

Learn more about music therapy at CHOC

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The Power of Music Therapy: Darlyn’s Story

On a sunny day in the middle of spring, Darlyn was born at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. She was immediately transferred across the street to the level IV neonatal intensive care unit at CHOC Children’s. As the spring turned to summer, and summer gave way to fall, the NICU remained Darlyn’s home as she battled with a myriad of health challenges.

Before she was born, prenatal ultrasounds showed that Darlyn had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a rare birth defect where a hole in her diaphragm allowed organs from the abdomen to move into the chest. After birth, she was diagnosed with bilateral CDH. Approximately one in every 2,500 babies born are diagnosed with CDH. Of those, only one percent have a bilateral CDH. Darlyn’s parents Mirian and Edgar understood the seriousness of this diagnosis and weren’t sure if their baby would survive the pregnancy, or pass away shortly after birth. In her first week of life, Darlyn underwent her first in a series of surgeries.

“For the first two or three weeks of her life, our main goal was survivorship,” recalls Edgar.

darlyn-and-her-father-nicu
Darlyn and her father Edgar in the NICU.

Darlyn also has underdeveloped lungs (a condition known as pulmonary hypoplasia), which makes it a struggle to breathe on her own. She lacks a fully formed esophagus, meaning she also can’t swallow or eat on her own either. During Mirian’s pregnancy there was a build-up of amniotic fluid due to Darlyn’s duodenal atresia (a blockage of her small intestine), so the baby was especially active and moved around constantly. The only thing that calmed her down was playing music ― everything from lullabies to classic rock did the trick. Knowing their baby loved music even before she was born, her parents gave her the middle name Melody.

“From day one she has been the melody of our lives,” Mirian says.

Darlyn and her mother in the NICU at CHOC Children's
Darlyn and her mother in the NICU at CHOC Children’s.

Music has continued to play a big role in the now seventh-month-old’s life. Daily music therapy sessions conducted in tandem with occupational therapy sessions have helped her make progress on clinical goals such as developing fine motor skills. Other goals she’s already accomplished include standing for longer periods of time, reaching for and grasping toys tightly, and visual tracking.

A music therapy session conducted in tandem with occupational therapy in the NICU.
A music therapy session conducted in tandem with occupational therapy in the NICU.

“Before starting music therapy, Darlyn wasn’t very active and she often lost oxygen very quickly,” Brie says. “This baby is a new baby since experiencing music therapy.”

Environmental music helps create a soothing space to teach patients to calm themselves in an over-stimulated environment, which can help them heal, even after they go home.

“From the outside, it may look simple, as if I am just serenading a baby in a soothing tone, but I’m working hand in hand with their developmental team to help them reach clinical milestones.”

darlyn-music-therapy-nicu
A music therapy session conducted in tandem with occupational therapy in the NICU.

Darlyn’s care team is vast. Her medical team at CHOC sees music therapy as a trusted partner in helping Darlyn achieve her clinical goals. Her support system includes: Dr. Irfan Ahmad, a neonatologist; Dr. Peter Yu, a pediatric general and thoracic surgeon; and pediatric specialists from gastroenterology pulmonology, cardiology, infectious disease, the NICU developmental team (made up of occupational, physical and speech therapists), and a dedicated team of NICU nurses.

“We love and appreciate our NICU nurses more than we can even put into words,” Mirian says. “Without them, this journey would be more difficult and more heartbreaking. They take care of Darlyn as if she was their own baby girl.”

Jamie, a NICU nurse, celebrates July 4th with Darlyn.
Jamie, a NICU nurse, celebrates July 4th with Darlyn.

“Music helps calm down infants,” says Dr. Ahmad. “During their fetal life, they are exposed to rhythmic sounds, such as their mother’s heartbeat. They get accustomed to these sounds, and after birth when they hear music with a similar rhythm, they like it. Older neonates become more interactive with rhythmic music, and they look forward to their sessions.”

Darlyn isn’t the only one who has been looking forward to her daily music therapy sessions― her mom does too. After each session, her developmental team calls Mirian to give a full report on her occupational therapy progress and disposition.

Her parent’s high level of engagement is deeply appreciated by her care team.

darlyn-halloween-costume-nicu
Darlyn’s parents chose a Snow White theme for her first Halloween, which she celebrated in CHOC’s NICU.

“Darlyn’s parents are amazing. They ask good questions, and they trust us to take good care of their little girl. It would be hard to tackle this level of complexity without their trust,” says Dr. Yu. “We still have a long road ahead of us, and maybe more challenges too, but they are resilient, just like their daughter.”

Darlyn-private-room-decor-nicu
Darlyn’s parents have decorate her private room in the CHOC Children’s NICU to feel more like home.

A few months into her time in CHOC’s NICU, Darlyn moved into the brand new 36-room unit with all private rooms. Her family has loved having their own private space.

“In the old unit, it could get noisy and we didn’t feel like we had any privacy. Now, we get to decorate her room and make it feel more like a nursery,” says Mirian.

Darlyn's parents have decorate her private room in the CHOC Children's NICU to feel more like home.
Darlyn’s parents have decorate her private room in the CHOC Children’s NICU to feel more like home.

The family has displayed notes of encouragement from loved ones and her favorite nurses- including nurse Jamie, who taught Darlyn how to stick out her tongue. They’ve even hung up the outfit she’ll wear when she finally gets to go home.

darlyn's-going-home-outfit
Darlyn’s parents have hung up the outfit she’ll wear when she finally gets to go home from the NICU.
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Music Therapy at CHOC Provides Healing, Positive Diversion

It is a known fact that listening to music can soothe one’s soul, but studies have shown that music can also promote the physical healing process. Some of the benefits that aid healing include pain management, relaxation, motor movement, enhancement of self-esteem and other social skills, and providing a positive diversion.

DSC_8947And, with the recent opening of our new in-house studio, Seacrest Studios, located in the Bill Holmes Tower at CHOC Children’s, enjoying music is just the beginning. The 652-square-foot facility includes five guest microphones; production-quality video cameras; and a green screen that will allow for patient participation in video projects. Live performances in nearby areas will also be broadcast through the studio.

We spoke to Eric Mammen, Music Therapist in CHOC Children’s Child Life Department, who shared the benefits of music therapy and having our very own multimedia studio at CHOC!

Q:  How long have you been at CHOC Children’s, and how did you become interested in this field?
A:  I have been at CHOC for just under 5 years and first became interested in music therapy while I was studying music in college. A class within the music curriculum was called, “Inside the Music Industry” and we had a different presentation each week about various career options available to those with musical talents.  I saw a presentation about music therapy and I knew in that moment I was going to be a music therapist.

Q:  What is music therapy?
A:  Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. To the untrained eye, or from the patient’s perspective, we are just playing instruments and singing songs.  However, in reality I am using the music to achieve quantitative and qualitative non-musical goals set by the patient care team.

Q:  What are some of the changes you have seen in patients who have participated in music therapy?

Eric Mammen, MT-BC, music therapist at CHOC Children's
Eric Mammen, music therapist at CHOC Children’s

A:  I have seen children use an extremity that they have been neglecting since a surgery and a child sit up for the first time in weeks to engage with the musical experience. Every day I see children laughing and playing while undergoing intensive chemo therapy. A 5-year-old little girl who was on the oncology floor for an extended period of time, immediately told me and her parents me that she forgot that she was in the hospital during our  “music time.” Many times the parents have tears of joy to see their child having fun and being a kid again, if not for a few minutes.

With the teens and young adults, we do song writing, song recording and learn how to play instruments. When I give the patient their CD with their own voice or original song, I always tell them that they have to listen to their music in their car as they drive away from the hospital – a victory song if you will.

Q:  How will the new Seacrest Studios benefit the kids at CHOC?
A:  We are so lucky to have a space within the hospital like Seacrest Studios.  To be able to broadcast audio and video throughout the hospital allows our patients to express themselves and relate to one another on a deeply personal and emotional level.

We broadcast the songs that the patients may write or sing within the music therapy sessions, during the radio shows. The patient can come down to the studio and be interviewed and share about their song. This studio allows them tell their story, share their experiences, and let the other children know that they are not alone in their battle.  We have great volunteers to help the patients feel welcomed and special when they are “on-air.”  Music is powerful and this new studio allows the patients at CHOC to experience that power in new and exciting ways.

Learn more about specialized therapeutic programs at CHOC. 

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