Music Therapy as a Disaster Relief Service for Adolescents

By Cailey Garner, MusicWorx Intern

Content warning: Experiences of displacement, loss, and trauma.


Our modern world is in constant motion. As we witness the rise of sea level, record-setting temperatures, unprecedented floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and drought, we must also rise to combat the effects of climate change and natural disasters. These events do not only pose a physical threat to homes and businesses, but they also devastate communities, leaving behind psychologically distressed survivors (Freedy et. al, 1994). The increasing number and scope of extreme natural forces necessitates disaster relief services to rebuild the lives of suffering families and to bring healing to their psychological distress.

While these events alter the lives of adults greatly, I want to address the impact on adolescents when disaster strikes. Adolescents commonly experience feelings of loneliness and isolation and often struggle to maintain healthy coping skills and coping mindsets in times of trauma. (Mcferran and Hunt, 2008). They often experience pressure among peers to remain unphased and unaffected by traumatic events. Thus, instead of finding a place to verbally process and find support for their experience, adolescents often find criticism and blame if they are seen to be struggling psychologically. 

The Great East Japan Earthquake

An eyewitness of disaster, Dr. Masako Otera was a music therapist in Japan when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. Estimated at a magnitude of 9.0, this was the most powerful earthquake in the recent history of Japan. This earthquake triggered a tsunami, which in turn caused equipment failures and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident completely devastated the residents for months and, as a practicing music therapist, she had no formal training of how to respond to such a catastrophe. The survivors of the earthquake, whose homes were destroyed, lived in local shelters with no other access to food, gas, or water for weeks on end (Otera 2012). Home displacement is a common result of such events, separating communities and driving adolescents from the home of their childhood. Trauma may linger for an extended period of time as a result. (Nuttman-Swartz, et. al, 2010). Dr. Otera found a great need for healing and connection within the local community. While she encountered many issues finding the resources and connections she needed in a situation so hectic, music therapy effectively served the community in this period of great distress (Otera 2012).

Hurricane Katrina

In August of 2005, another unforgettable disaster struck. Hurricane Katrina was the “most devastating disaster in the United States in the past half-century” (McLaughlin et al., 2014). These survivors experienced separation from family members, death of their loved ones, increased violence home displacement, loss of safety, increased poverty, time spent in shelters, increased health problems, and lack of resources such as food and clothing (Golden, 2006; McLaughlin et al., 2014; Rivlin, 2015). One 14-year-old survivor, Kenyon Dunbar, explained in this Rolling Stone article, that before the hurricane, he loved to tell stories. In wake of the disaster, however, he now recalls traumatic moments: breaking open vending machines to provide food for people trapped inside a building, watching an alligator attack a victim who dangled his feet in the water, waving at rescue boats and helicopters only to watch them disappear into the horizon. His once happy and outspoken personality gradually reshaped into hopelessness and despair. Research into the effects of Katrina for adolescents shows that approximately 20% of adolescents experienced serious emotional disturbances, and that PTSD symptoms, directly related to Katrina, were seen in many of these adolescents. In addition, a cost analysis suggested that if mental health treatment for hurricane survivors had been provided, the storm-attributable mental health problems would have been reduced by 35% at similar cost to other medical interventions (McLaughlin et al., 2014).

Why Music Therapy?

Music itself is already an outlet for young people to express their feelings. Statistics suggest that “teenagers spend up to six hours a day listening to music,” such as rock, pop, and rap, which often contain lyrics that communicate the precarious relationships and turbulent emotions of their teen years (Mcferran & Hunt, 46). Implementing musical interventions for adolescents can help give language to their experiences. Lyric analysis, for example, when used for the verbal processing of thoughts and emotions that arise after hearing a song, allows adolescents to discuss their opinions of a song and its lyric content before delving into the heart of their trauma. 

Aesthetic Distance Through Music

In conducting music therapy group sessions with teens, Wiess and Bensimon (2019) found that the structure of music provided a means of aesthetic distance in which the ritualistic and symbolic aspects of the music therapy experience allowed the participants to confront their feelings of grief and pain, without feeling retraumatized or triggered. This occurs as the music intervention, which is already more approachable to teens than verbal processing, becomes a sort of metaphor for their experiences, enabling the trauma to feel as a distanced memory or reflection (Wiess & Bensimon, 2019). For more information on trauma-informed care, visit this blog post by Musicworx Inc. While other forms of therapy require that the client discuss the immediate results of a traumatic event, music therapy can allow an individual to process and reflect on their emotions, without feeling as if they must revisit the raw emotion itself. By allowing their own preferred music to speak to them and through them, adolescents greatly benefit from the aesthetic distance provided by music therapy intervention.

Music Therapy as a Solution

The psychological effects experienced by adolescents following a natural disaster are likely to affect hardship as they develop into adulthood. In addition, verbal processing of traumatic experiences can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable. However, due to the nature of music in the way that it touches “the deepest human emotion, and provides expression for feelings which words cannot express,” music therapy is a service that enables communication and processing of deep emotion (Choi 384). Connection is often the missing piece following natural disasters; and, once the affected residents are given the opportunity to partake in music making together, community fuels healing and reparation (Otera, 2012; Mcferran & Hunt, 2008). The future of the profession would greatly benefit from an increase of research concerning music therapy as a disaster relief service. 


Choi, C. (2010). A Pilot Analysis of the Psychological Themes Found During the CARING at Columbia—Music Therapy Program with Refugee Adolescents from North Korea. Journal of Music Therapy, 47(4), 380-407.

Freedy, J. R., Saladin, M. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., & Saunders, B. E. (1994). Understanding acute psychological distress following natural disaster. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7(2), 257-273. doi:10.1007/BF02102947

Golden, O. (2006), After Katrina: Rebuilding opportunity and equity into the new New Orleans. The Urban Institute. Retrieved from: 

Mcferran, K., & Hunt, M. (2008). Learning from experiences in action: Music in schools to promote healthy coping with grief and loss. Educational Action Research, 16(1), 43-54.

McLaughlin, K. A., Fairbank, J. A., Gruber, M. J., Jones, R. T., Lakoma, M. D., Pfefferbaum, B., Smapson, N A., & Kessler, R. C. (2014). Serious emotional disturbance among youth exposed to Hurricane Katrina two years post-disaster. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2009 Nov; 48(11):1069-1078. doi : 10.1097/CHI0b013e3181b76697 

Nuttman-Shwartz, O., Huss, E., & Altman, A. (2010). The Experience of Forced Relocation as Expressed in Children’s Drawings. Clinical Social Work Journal, 38(4), 397-407.

Otera, M. (2012). What Do Music Therapists Need to Know Before the Disaster Strikes? Voices, 12(1), Voices, 01 February 2012, Vol.12(1).

Rivlin, G. (2015) The Lasting Effects of Hurricane Katrina. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from: 

Vanarthos, M. (2020) Trauma-informed care. Musicworx Inc. Retrieved from:

Wiess, C., & Bensimon, M. (2019). Group music therapy with uprooted teenagers: The Importance of structure. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 2019.


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