I Don’t Have to Bust Out My Hazmat Suit?

By Sarah Murrin, MusicWorx Intern

When politics come up in music therapy sessions, I used to automatically zip up my hazmat suit and redirect like my life depended on it. Playing it safe is respectable considering the current political climate. One session with a patient in the medical setting shattered that mindset for me; maybe it will resonate with you, too.

The Session

A patient and I were discussing frustrations with daily hospital routines and other surface-level issues. He was extremely overwhelmed and mentioned that our country is in turmoil. The patient’s hurried comments revealed political opinions that contrast with mine. Rather than shutting down, I followed my clinical intuition and asked the patient more about his beliefs. Apparently, he was not expecting to speak more about politics with me.  He released anger and impatience with the government and society. I traced the patient’s opinions back to fundamental values while he spoke.

Having already established great rapport by the time we dove into the political atmosphere, my probing questions flowed naturally and allowed this patient the time and safe space to organize his feelings into words. Once I validated those, we shifted our focus to unpacking the patient’s fears about his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. I offered Phil Vassar’s song, My Next Thirty Years (made famous by Tim McGraw!).

As a result of our discussion about politics, we were able to adapt the lyrics to reflect the changes he’d like to see in himself and the world around him in these last few years of his life.


The patient’s initial hesitation to speak more about his political opinions helped me remember that I might be one of the only members of his healthcare team with the time and resources to focus on the whole person, including core beliefs and values.

Shying away from controversial topics can hinder our ability to make meaningful connections and inhibit the patient’s treatment plan. In this case, embracing the patient’s political identity helped me pinpoint his underlying thoughts and allowed him to explore deeply rooted issues in a meaningful manner.

My job was to ensure he felt heard and respected. This responsibility served as a catalyst in my personal and professional development in working with people who have polar opposite beliefs and values than mine.

Professional Development

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) Professional Competencies outline influential identities on the therapeutic process (9.5):

  • Race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation.

Yes, those identities unmistakably have an influence on the therapeutic process. It wasn’t until I fully embraced the intricacies of an individual’s identity in sessions that I could begin to comprehend the depth of their significance.  For this reason, I do not believe these standards are appropriately worded in the AMTA Professional Competencies:

  • 1.2 Identify the elemental, structural, and stylistic characteristics of music from various periods and cultures.
  • 9.5 Demonstrate awareness of the influence of race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation on the therapeutic process.
  • 17.9 Demonstrate knowledge of and respect for diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • 17.10 Treat all persons with dignity and respect, regardless of differences in race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation.
  • 17.11 Demonstrate skill in working with culturally diverse populations.

Defining what qualifies as ‘competent’ for these five standards would be a Herculean task. AMTA should strongly consider rephrasing them so they reflect the commitment it takes to navigate cultural humility, as opposed to a box to check off.

Personal Development

Developing a relationship with a patient from a different political bubble than mine was humbling. He helped me reach a significant milestone in my life: My willingness to understand the opinions of those who do not agree with me has increased exponentially.

I understand that my emotional capacity will determine my stability in this milestone. I might not be interested in dissecting other people’s worldviews on certain days, and that is okay. It will look like the Hokey Pokey as I step in and out of this newfound mindset over time.

At least for now, I’m excited that I truly want to learn from others about their beliefs for the first time in my life.

  • Why or why not should Trump build a wall?
  • Why or why not it is okay to have an abortion?
  • Why or why not should there only be two genders?
  • Etc.!

I’m hoping to expand my awareness.  As you can tell, I’m not only resisting my hazmat suit; it might as well be shredded… for now.

Moving Past Politics…

Plenty of topics might make a hazmat suit seem extremely appealing to therapists. Can you think of an instance when you redirected a conversation away from a controversial issue? I suspect this surfaced from your inclination to keep both your and your patient’s best interests in mind.

Individual music therapy sessions can provide a conducive environment for patients to safely express and explore their feelings about deep rooted issues. Many topics may strike a nerve in therapists, though, such as opposing political and religious beliefs.

The likelihood of therapists having to validate microaggressions (see Meera Sinha’s post A Box of Chocolates) toward themselves in sessions naturally increases during discussions with touchy subjects.  I, for one, recently validated a patient’s disapproval of the legalization of same-sex marriage.

What About My Own Identities?

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I often endure feelings of fear and guilt in the workplace. To make my life easier, I hide any and all traces of this identity away. I acknowledge the privilege I have to conceal an oppressed identity and the issues surrounding my choice to do so. People with visible disabilities and people of color, for example, do not have the choice to externally avoid oppressive systems.

While I refuse to validate hurtful comments toward people with disabilities or people of color, among other oppressed identities, I do not harbor feelings of resentment or anger towards people who do not support the LGBTQ+ community. Rather, I extend understanding and appreciation of their beliefs and values.

How could I expect others to treat me with respect if I cannot do the same for them?

*Please note that I only speak for myself, not an entire community, in my beliefs.

Why Does This All (Haz)matter?

Navigating the role privileged and oppressed identities play in the therapeutic setting is tricky. The answers to ethical dilemmas are seldom clear-cut. Ultimately, it is the patients you work with who facilitate your development in cultural humility.

Remember that acknowledging your lack of awareness can open doors in your personal and professional relationships, especially when that’s paired with your willingness to learn. Also remember that as a therapist, you always have the right to excuse yourself from directly hateful or deeply offensive situations.

An exciting aspect of a career in music therapy is that it ensures a life of perpetual learning. There is unparalleled beauty in connecting with people different from yourself. Music is an invaluable medium in our toolbelt that enhances human interaction and connection.

Instead of obsessing over the things you can’t change, focus on what you CAN: your attitude, mindset, and energy.


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