PTSD Awareness Month places extra focus on music therapy

Posted On: Monday, 24 June 2024

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees work with veterans throughout the year in music therapy to help them navigate through trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Through this therapy, veterans have the chance to enter their local Veterans Creative Arts Festival through the VA, another opportunity to use music to work through their trauma. 
Lara Hermanson, a music therapist with the Minneapolis VA since June 2022, shares insight into the power of healing through the arts. 
With PTSD Awareness Month happening now in June, can you discuss treating PTSD using the arts?
Members of our interdisciplinary team often remark that my art therapist colleague and I are able to reach our patients through “side doors” and get them to open up in really meaningful ways that other therapies aren’t always able to access. I think any therapist from any discipline who is fortunate enough to work with someone experiencing PTSD knows that trust in the therapeutic relationship is the first and most important aspect of the work. The creative arts are inherently connective; they create the opportunity for vulnerability in a supportive and safe space. 
In what ways can music help veterans?
One of my patients put it so perfectly when he said, “Therapists TALK too much.” And that’s not to say that verbal processing isn’t incredibly important in healing. But where I believe the arts can be so transformative is the ability for both the patient and provider to be present and connected through the act of making music or listening to music. Music and the other creative arts can be a safe container for the experiences or emotions that feel outside the realm of verbal expression. 
What do you personally like about working with veterans in music? 
I really enjoy making music accessible to veterans and servicemembers. So many of the patients I work with have the conception that making beautiful music isn’t a possibility for them, or feels out of reach. Being a primarily inpatient therapist, I work with patients who have very busy schedules filled with physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychology, and so many other important pieces of recovery. Sometimes the creative arts are a place to decompress, to simply “be” after a long day of physical and mental work. 
What do you think are maybe misconceptions about music therapy?
Many people believe that a person already must be a musician or have experience or talent in music to benefit from music therapy. People also very often see music therapy as simply music lessons or music therapists singing to their patients. While therapy sessions can sometimes look like that, that conception of music therapy discounts the deeply personal and meaningful work that patients do through the lens of music.  
Do you have any personal examples of music therapy working to help a veteran with PTSD?
One of my favorite interventions recently has been using the harp to improvise. It came about because one of my patients heard we had a harp and asked to try it. It’s such a beautiful, resonant instrument and the vibrations of the lower strings are often very soothing. This patient experienced high anxiety in his body, often visible through a bouncing knee or tapping hand, and was often self-critical. As the facilitator, I provided stability and accompaniment on the marimba in a heartbeat-like rhythm, and instructed the patient to explore the harp. As his exploration progressed and developed, his body visibly relaxed. He fully immersed into the music-making, and for that time, we were connected.
What happens in a music therapy session?
I like to get my patients started on an instrument right away, especially if it’s an instrument they’ve always dreamed of trying. I’m very lucky to have access to so many instruments through funds donated to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. I’ve gotten to facilitate veterans and servicemembers playing the guitar, ukulele, bass guitar, banjo, electric guitar, piano, accordion, harp, drum kit, marimba, and so many more! 
The Veterans Creative Arts Festival at the local and national levels is so important to our veterans to give them a creative outlet. Can you talk more about how it’s life-changing at the local level? 
As we age, opportunities to be involved in the arts become more limited — or perhaps less readily accessible — especially for those who may struggle with anxiety or social isolation. The Veterans Creative Arts Festival is a great opportunity for veterans to connect with other veterans who share a love of the arts, but it’s also a beautiful space for veterans to share that creative piece of themselves and have it validated, accepted, and celebrated by their community. 

ALA Mission

In the spirit of Service, Not Self, the mission of the American Legion Auxiliary is to support The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of our veterans, military, and their families, both at home and abroad. For God and Country, we advocate for veterans, educate our citizens, mentor youth, and promote patriotism, good citizenship, peace and security.