Adolescent Substance Use Counselor Teaches Teens to Manage Substance Misuse Through Music

Tatum Clark has always been interested in working with adolescents, so when she was given the opportunity to complete her Music Therapy practicum at the Juvenile Detention Center in Springfield, Missouri, she jumped on it.

There, she met kids of all ages serving time in the detention center for illegally possessing and using drugs. Many of those kids had gotten their chosen substance from mom, dad, or a sibling and were too young to realize the impact of their choices. In some cases, it was normalized, even expected, that they would use substances, and they didn’t know any other way of life.

“That experience really stuck with me and fundamentally changed how I view individuals suffering from substance use disorders,” said Tatum. Working in the detention center helped her see the humanity within each adolescent and develop a sense of empathy and understanding for their situation.

Through this eye-opening experience, Tatum discovered a passion that has motivated her to this day: to keep kids alive and out of prison.

This passion led Tatum to complete six months as a music therapist intern at Cornerstones of Care. Music therapists like Tatum use music as a tool to build trust and accomplish therapeutic goals like reducing stress or improving cognitive skills. A week after graduating from college in December 2022, she was hired full-time as the Adolescent Substance Use Counselor.

Tatum’s work at Cornerstones of Care is split between one-on-one sessions with kids in the Ozanam Campus Residential Treatment program, school-based substance use education, and other small group therapy offerings. Her work is closely aligned with the expressive therapy program that uses movement, art, and music therapies to help promote healthy behaviors and coping skills in youth.

Through the Jackson County COMBAT (Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax) Grant, Tatum has the opportunity to go into schools and meet with kids to talk about substance use.

“Essentially, the Substance Use Counselor or someone from the expressive therapy team goes to schools and offers general drug education, works on skills with the students, and gives them information,” said Tatum.

Their work in schools primarily focuses on middle school-aged youth, as this is a typical age when kids first encounter drugs and alcohol. Additionally, drug education often centers on fentanyl because its use is so widespread.

Back on campus, Tatum meets weekly with youth in the Residential Treatment program, working through the lens of SMART Recovery, a program that helps people recover from addictive and problematic behaviors. It is self-empowering and evidence-informed, and it’s all about promoting choice for those in recovery.

It’s in those intimate, one-on-one sessions that Tatum feels like she can make the biggest impact. Depending on the client, she will integrate aspects of music therapy into her work to help the youth express themselves or learn how to cope. One of her favorite teaching tools is the guitar.

“I love teaching guitar – it is one of my favorite instruments,” said Tatum. According to Tatum, it’s a hard skill to learn, and it helps kids build their confidence. “And it teaches them how to care for something and respect the property.”

Another common application of music therapy is asking kids to write a rap or song about their experience with substances.

“It may include content like how they feel about their mom or dad or how addiction impacts them as a person,” said Tatum.

Tatum recalled a student, *Isaiah, who didn’t share a lot with others until he found the ability to communicate through music.

“When he uses a microphone and a speaker and sings his favorite songs, he’s incredibly loud and expressive,” said Tatum.

Isaiah has only been with the Residential Treatment Program for a year, but when in that safe, musical space, he has managed to open up about how drugs and alcohol have affected his life and his motivation to not repeat the same mistakes of his family members who have chosen to use.

“He’s not scared to sing anymore, and he’s also not scared to share about his past,” said Tatum. “I feel like our rapport is really great, and that was built through music.”

Still, there are days that can be really challenging for Tatum, and she doubts whether she’s making an impact on these youth at all.

“You can tell them all the dangers in the world, but until they’ve connected that they want to be healthier and safer in their life, then it’s just information rattling around in there,” said Tatum.

To manage some of those challenges, Tatum has learned to adjust her expectations, practice self-care, and lean on the other therapists for support. Ultimately, she hopes that if young people choose to use, then they do so knowing the facts and what to do if dangers arise.

“My end goal is not that kids live a life of full sobriety and never touch alcohol,” said Tatum. “I want kids to not be in prison for something bad that happened in their life and because they turned to substance use. I want them to have other ways to cope, manage, and express themselves.”

*Name changed to protect privacy