SRU represented on task force helping health care workers receive music therapy


Healthcare worker playing an instrument

Health care workers in Pennsylvania will soon have greater access to music therapy services thanks to a grant-funded statewide program that had input from a task force made up of a Slippery Rock University faculty member, student and alumna.

July 6, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Frontline health care workers across Pennsylvania will soon receive relief in the form of music therapy thanks to the work of a Slippery Rock University professor, student and alumna. Gov. Tom Wolf's administration recently announced a first-of-its-kind partnership that will help health care workers cope with stress through creative arts therapy services including music therapy.

Although the partnership is between a membership organization, the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, and the state agency called the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a significant part of the advocacy, education and administrative work for the initiative involves the Pennsylvania Music Therapy Task Force, which has ties to SRU.

For more than a decade, Nicole Hahna, SRU associate professor of music, has served on the task force that originated from a regional chapter of the American Music Therapy Association. The groups's charge is to advocate on behalf of music therapy as a profession and practice in the state, but they've been collaborating with both the PCA and HAP to address the well-being of health care professionals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Nurses, doctors and all health care workers in every county in Pennsylvania have been affected by COVID," said Hahna. "Music therapy has been used by health care workers following trauma and during crises dating back to 9/11 in a variety of New York City hospitals. The pandemic has been another crisis that health care workers had to respond to with little preparation."

Hahna is a co-chair of the task force, along with Michelle Muth, a 2009 SRU graduate with degrees in music therapy and music education: piano. Half of the six-member task force have SRU ties including Arianna Bendlin, a graduate student majoring in music therapy from Pittsburgh. Muth owns M3 Music Therapy in Beaver County and Bendlin works as a music therapist at Wesley Family Services.



Members of the task force communicated with the PCA leading up to the awarding of the grant to the HAP and their work will continue as they review applications from hospitals applying for the grant to create programs providing music therapy to health care workers free of charge to the hospitals. Hospitals will work with board certified music therapists to fulfill the services.

"The COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseen and compounded challenges for the frontline health care workers who gave so selflessly to the patients they served," said Andy Carter, president and CEO of HAP in a statement released by his organization. "This innovative partnership will help us care for our caregivers in new ways, supporting their resilience and well-being through the healing power of music."

Music therapy has been practiced for decades to help all types of individuals, and evidence has shown that the clinical use of music interventions accomplishes mental health goals for people within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy degree program. SRU, which first accepted music therapy undergraduate students in 1974 before adding a graduate degree program in 2016, is one of 10 universities in Pennsylvania that awards music therapy degrees. Today, there are more than 580 board certified music therapists in Pennsylvania.

"I'm very proud of SRU and the interprofessional collaboration that we're doing here," Hahna said. "We are excited to be able to raise awareness about music therapy as a task force, but more importantly, to give back interprofessionally. I see that as being at the heart of this particular grant; it's not just focused on music therapists or just helping nurses or doctors, but any health care worker who's been affected by the pandemic."

According to the partners of the grant, many frontline health care workers who have been heavily involved in caring for COVID-19 patients have reported experiencing long-term exhaustion, depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This can contribute to increased burnout and retention issues for the health care sector, and potentially diminish the quality of patient care.

Through this state initiative, music therapists will work in hospitals to facilitate music interventions in a variety of forms and availability. For example, a doctor might drop in to see a music therapist and play an instrument as a way to calm their nerves before performing surgery, or a group of nurses from an intensive care unit that might have experienced a difficult shift could have a scheduled session of listening or creating music to cope with the loss of a patient.

"The beauty of this partnership is that every hospital gets to design a program that they know will work for its staff," Hahna said. "Some of the examples we gave were things like using music's ability to process emotions non-verbally. Being exposed chronically to stress can lead to compassion fatigue, or what we would call burnout. Sometimes as a health care professional you don't feel like you can talk about (what you're dealing with) because you need to move on to support your next patient, but you still need to process what you're going through to release the tension."

Hahna said there are four methods of music therapy: compositional, or songwriting; recreative, such as learning how to play a chord on a guitar; improvisational, such as expressing emotions by playing the drums; and receptive, or simply listening to music.

The statewide program will first be piloted for health care workers at health systems in the southeast region of Pennsylvania as early as the fall, and HAP will later implement subsequent programs for other regions.

"We're excited because this is the first statewide initiative of directly bringing music therapy into multiple hospitals simultaneously, not just one at a time," Hahna said. "I think it will help hospitals that might not have been familiar with music therapy to truly see the impact that it can have. Mental health (problems) are a pandemic within a pandemic and the amount of work that health care professionals are putting in has been incredible, but it takes its toll. We are very pleased that (the Wolf administration) is taking this opportunity to collaborate and bring music therapy where it's needed."

More information about the initiative, HAP and the PCA are available online. More information about the music therapy master's and bachelor's programs at SRU are available on the Music Department's webpage.

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