Music and Art Therapy In VA For Mental Health

Aug 18, 2020

In our last installment of the Mental Health Matters series, we dive into some of the arts-based therapies in our area, speaking to practitioners who use music, visual art, and other methods to help their clients deal with grief, depression, and anxiety. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Music speaks to us. It distracts us from hardship; it expresses emotions that we have trouble articulating. For music therapist Robby McCoubrey, the benefits aren't just in listening to a poignant song, but in making music together.

Robby McCoubrey

ROBBY MCCOUBREY: On a neurological level, when we make music, we increase our dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin levels, and so that inherently has benefit to us and our emotional and physical wellbeing.

McCoubrey works with The Arc of Harrisonburg and Rockingham, a support center for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He used to lead drum circles and sing songs with up to 20 participants in a room together. Now, of course, he's had to translate those sessions to a virtual format during the pandemic – singing songs to the clients or leading them in breathing and movement exercises through a computer screen.

MCCOUBREY: So that they can mirror me as much as they can. You know, when we would be meeting in person, there'd be lots of instruments. So, you know, I'd say, alright follow me, and I'd do a big rumble on the drum, and they'd rumble, and I'd do lots of starts and stops, quick and fast just to keep them attentive, and they would get an opportunity to come up and lead. Well that's a lot harder on the online format.

Laura Tuomisto

The staff at Shenandoah Art Therapy in Waynesboro have also been missing their group sessions, although they've been able to see their clients one-on-one throughout most of the pandemic. Laura Tuomisto is their director.

LAURA TUOMISTO: We're looking forward to bringing back in the group component, especially because we are all going to need such intense group healing when it's all over.

Tuomisto taps on a huge variety of media to find something that her clients connect with, such as drawing, painting, collage, weaving branches together, or making jewelry.

TUOMISTO: We apply art as our medicine. So we might say, okay, can you represent, using lines, shapes, and colors, what that anxiety looks like, feels like inside your body? What, or how is the pain experienced if you had to put that down on canvas or paper? And it just gives us a lot of really rich information to work with.

One of the boons of art therapy is that it activates both hemispheres of the brain at the same time, which Tuomisto says is particularly helpful in addressing traumatic incidents from a client's past.

TUOMISTO: Going back to that actual trauma itself and using both drawing and a narrative process to help the brain to weave it together, get all that information, and then kind of lay it to rest.

She says that anybody can benefit from art therapy, regardless of the last time you held a brush or a glue gun.

TUOMISTO: The number one myth that we oftentimes have to bust is just helping people know that they don't have to consider themselves to be a "great artist" to benefit from art therapy. I think that sometimes keeps folks from giving it a try, but there are so many ways to engage in the creative process … it's part of the art therapist's job to help them find materials that feel comfortable and also, you know, help them get to the goals that they're after.

Darleen Green

The Hospice of the Piedmont's Center for Children in Charlottesville also uses a variety of materials and methods in the grief services that they offer children and families. They recently held a virtual grief camp for children, with 24 kids tuning in each day to interact with musicians, play therapists, and even horses.

On the last day of the camp –

DARLENE GREEN: The kids took turns sharing memories with their pictures that they had drawn the day before. And so it was a really, very nice way to end. A lot of the parents were able to join the kids on the last day.

Darlene Green is an art therapist at the Hospice. They take a holistic approach to end of life care, and that includes the people who are left behind when someone dies. Green works with the hospice patients themselves, their family members, and children who have lost a loved one, regardless of whether or not that person was a hospice patient.

GREEN: People who have had a loved one die, say, in a car accident, they can call us afterwards and say, could you start seeing my child? And we do, and there's no fees for any of the services we provide.

Some of the hospice patients who receive art therapy want to use the time and materials to create mementos, such as scrapbooks or decorated bookmarks that their families will remember them by. It also just gives them a moment of joy in their days.

GREEN: There's a different focus because the children, with that population it's always about their grief and there's a variety of topics that we cover that will be helpful to the child going through their grief journey.

As part of that journey, during the children's camp music therapist Cathy Bollinger helped the kids write their own song about grief, and then performed it for them.

For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.