By Marielle Sheppel
Every fifteen minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-related incident.
This Monday, supervising music therapist Noelle Pederson and the MusicWorx intern team had the chance to play an important and unprecedented role in Helix High School’s triennial Every 15 Minutes program sponsored by the La Mesa Police Department.
Every 15 Minutes is an emotionally intense two-day program designed to challenge high school upperclassmen to think about drinking and driving, and the responsibility of making mature decisions when lives are involved. The program usually involves around 30 students being removed from class throughout the day “due to an alcohol-related incident,” death notices delivered to family members, a school assembly with a staged car crash and emergency responders, and an all-school memorial service for the 20-30 lost students including eulogies from the parents and footage from the crash. The “dead” students represent a random sampling across the school’s demographics, and remain off the grid for 24 hours after being declared dead in class, usually staying overnight in a community setting until after the memorial service the next day. Needless to say, it is a powerful first-hand experience for young adults to go through; involving complex emotions surrounding not only personal ramifications but also the impact those decisions would have on family and friends.
Maxine Lynch, Community Resource Supervisor for the La Mesa Police Department, had contacted Noelle with the opportunity to be involved in her third year of putting on the Every 15 Minutes program in La Mesa County. Maxine’s daily work involves debriefing emergency first responders – police, fire fighters, and EMS arriving at the scene of a sometimes-horrific emergency – but this day would involve debriefing teenagers involved in a mock catastrophe. “This is the third one that I’ve done, and our department would not do it without debriefing the kids at the end of the day,” Maxine said. “I think that is really important.”
In a one-hour music therapy session with the twenty high school “victims,” Noelle led the group through a range of emotions and experiences, all geared toward uniting this randomized group of traumatized individuals, normalizing their experience, and providing an opportunity to process the events that had transpired – very normal goals for music therapy. In the initial twenty minutes of musical play in a drum circle, the walls were already coming down. “I really liked the part where everyone just put in their own beat, cause you got to be part of the group but also have some individuality too,” one participant voiced. “It was cool.” Even Maxine noticed the rapid change: “When they added their own individual beat to the group, even the shy ones were just—boom! They were in it! And, for me, that was so good to see.”
Once the group cohesion and “groove” were established, Noelle could transition to a brief time of heavier processing. The “victims” shared one-word descriptors for emotions they noticed in themselves, in others, and the hardest part of the day, including responses such as “slightly traumatic,” “confused,” and “guilty.” The victims were able to process these emotions through themed drumming, which they afterward remarked was amazingly unified in its sense of tension and anxiety. Although students then symbolically played one beat per mock death, the group concluded in a celebratory song looking forward to how their new perspective is changing the future – a solemn memorial to their collective experience followed by a celebration of gratitude and living life to the fullest.
The music therapists arrived at the Helix High School’s overnight location to find the group of “victims” sitting silently on the stairs, staring straight ahead, and left with a smiling, unified, and validated team of leaders ready to realize the power of the choices of their generation. “Throughout the day you get all these emotions, and by the end of the day you really don’t know what to make of them,” one Helix student commented. “And then you have the music therapy, and it kind of lets you put them all into music, and you start making sense of all the feelings and you can organize them.” The effectiveness in preparing the group for processing of their traumatic experience was tangible; however, as Maxine confided at the end of the session, the La Mesa Police Department is probably the only agency that does a debriefing at the end. This our first experience using music therapy as a processing tool for Every 15 Minutes groups, and hopefully not the last; but there are hundreds if not thousands of similar demonstrations occurring in high schools across the country every year, providing a wonderful opportunity for music therapy to do its sometimes arduous, always magical work among these high school students.
As Maxine Lynch said, “If all they do is what you did… this is one way to effectively debrief at the end of the day. It’s what they needed.”
Closing Statements from Helix High School Participants:
So, throughout the day you get all these emotions and by the end of the day you really don’t know what to make of them; and then you have the music therapy, and it kind of lets you put them all into music, and you start making sense of all the feelings and you can organize them; and you kind of have a sense of what you experienced out of the whole day.
This was helpful in the way that, when you’re making music it doesn’t matter who you are making the music. Just like—it connects to what happens today because it doesn’t matter who you are, you could be in that situation…they’re the same thing.