The Pohutukawa Unit at the Mason Clinic Regional Forensic Psychiatric Service in Auckland is a specialist unit for offenders with mental health diagnoses and intellectual disabilities. The 12 men who reside here, some for more than 12 years, have limited scope for engagement with others beyond other care recipients and staff. Their isolation, close living quarters and disabilities tend to create challenging behaviours, including violence and depression. Raukatauri’s Clinical Team Leader Russell Scoones began providing group and individual sessions at the Pohutukawa Unit in February 2019 after RMTC was able to acquire funding for the project through the Frozen Funds Charitable Trust.
Engaging in work with disabled offenders can be challenging. Our non-judgemental humanistic approach needs to be alert as we spend creative and sometimes intimate emotional music sessions with people who have committed offences that may be disturbing to consider. How much insight into their crimes do they have and how does the relationship they are creating with the therapist help to rebuild a ‘healthy’ relationship model? With an intellectual disability and long term institutional isolation, alongside others with similar life problems, is there any sense of hope for a positive future?
Individual sessions are held with Andrew* (29) who lives in a separate ‘cluster’ with two other men and needs a minimum of two staff with him during music therapy. As well as having an intellectual disability, he also has autism spectrum disorder resulting in him being unable to socialise or communicate with other care recipients in the unit. Through his 10-year confinement, he has become withdrawn, depressed and unmotivated. His music play was initially perseverative and without emotion, the tempo wavering and stopping abruptly, but as the weeks progress he has become more aware of the interaction he is able to create with Russell. Russell says, “As I consistently attune to his rhythms and energy his tempo relaxes and becomes coherent, he is able to find ways to play with purposeful dynamism. He appears more eager each week to play, more positive when I arrive and even finds some moments of calm reflection with the large ocean drum. I feel he needs sonic nourishment so I give him choices, talk gently and try to find ways to put richness and warmth into my use of guitar and my voice. Staff are reporting that he “looks forward to seeing you when Tuesday comes.”
A group session with four men provides opportunities for creative expression and interaction with staff through instrument play, singing, lyric analysis and non-verbal interactions. The dynamics and choices of instruments shift each week as the group forms. Members who have been shy or less forceful find ways to be heard. What starts out as chaotic and disjointed becomes spacious and coherent. Feelings of group satisfaction in creating music together is significant, an achievement in acceptance. Thinking about what the group may do next time gives moments of planning for a creative future, something to look forward to.
The outcomes for music therapy in the Pohutukawa Unit will be about these men having an increase in their well-being, building a positive, creative relationship with the therapist and finding a space in the week where they may be dynamically, meaningfully expressive and emotive without fear or judgement. Will this lead to insight and reflection of where and why they are in this forensic institution? Possibly not, but for some moments they may have relief from incarceration. When this is provided regularly it may become a place where their environment is changed for a time, where a crack of light can shine through and provide a sense of hope.
*not his real name