Music to cope, learn, and heal

When alumnus Casey Ehresman ʹ08 taught in the K-12 education system, she noticed that music had a way of helping children manage stress and excel academically. She chose Colorado State University to study music therapy because of the program’s emphasis on neurologically based research and study. Now a music therapist in a maximum security state prison, Casey tells Noteworthy how she uses music to help mentally ill prisoners handle an unstable and dangerous environment.

Each day alumnus Casey Ehresman ʹ08 arranges percussion instruments while waiting for prison security to search her patients before they enter the room. In a maximum security prison, anything could have happened that week or that day. Lock downs are a common occurrence, sending prisoners into isolation for 2 to 3 days, and conflict between inmates is normal. As a Gestalt therapist, Casey decides the prisoner’s therapy based on what she thinks their needs are in the moment. Her aim is to identify what her patients are feeling and perceiving at that time, and to help them become aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they can change and accept themselves.

“I engage with them very much like I did with the junior high students I taught. They are people going through scary life transitions and they don’t have the confidence to stick with their instincts,” says Casey. “I help the patient identify what is going on, and we do exercises that support what is happening to those patients in that particular moment.”

While teaching orchestra and general music education in Southern Idaho and in the Poudre School District in Colorado, Casey witnessed the effect music had on children, particularly those with behavioral and emotional disorders.

“I noticed that music was really powerful for some of the kids who didn’t do well in the classroom. They responded to music in a way that was positive; they were able to celebrate successes and feel that they accomplished something at school,” says Casey. “I found that what it did for them positively helped them academically and as a person. They were more likely to share in the classroom, use their words, and follow instructions.”

Casey’s search for a school that provided training in music therapy stopped at CSU. The university’s neurologically based program matched Casey’s ambition to study what is happening to the brain in response to the properties of music. With a background in music education, Casey was venturing into new territory as she completed course work in chemistry, biology, physiology, and anatomy; and she was finally able to envision her theory that music was a catalyst for change in the brain.

“It was really validating to know that what I saw in the classroom wasn’t just an instinct, it was real. I knew something was happening in the brain and body. It was exciting to think about the circumstances I had faced earlier in my career, when I didn’t have the experience to realize and address situations, and use that information now to help people as a teacher and a therapist,” says Casey.

As a music therapist in a maximum security prison, Casey has taken a large leap from teaching music in K-12 schools. Now she joins other therapists in using various modalities to provide group therapy in an intermediate level of in-patient psychiatric care.

“The patients are surviving in their regular environment, but they aren’t functioning adequately,” says Casey. “They may be chronically suicidal or have delusions. Their psychosis may not necessarily be ongoing, but when their mental illness is exacerbated, they can be violent towards others or themselves.”

Placing prisoners in a drumming or choir group, Casey uses music therapy to assist patients in realizing how circumstances affect their own mental health, and how to cope with their internal thought process when dealing with certain situations. For Casey, these sessions are not so different from teaching music in the classroom.

“It’s different, but very much the same,” says Casey. “I provide a lot of developmental experiences that they didn’t have as children, and you would assume that they think I am having them do kid’s stuff, but the patients do not think that way. As human beings they have a need for these right brain experiences.”

Casey’s interest in psychology has not abated. Her goal to become a licensed psychologist is tied to her experience in using music to work with the mentally ill.

“Receiving my master’s degree in music therapy at CSU taught me that there is so much out there related to music, the arts, and therapy. Music therapy sounds specific, but there is so much you can do with it and focus on in the field,” says Casey. “I really enjoy the population I work with because they are from so many different backgrounds and places. I have such a profound interest in those experiences, and they sense that interest.”