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Healing Through Hip-Hop: Youth Overcome Addictions at The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations

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The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations proves that music, and particularly hip-hop, can dramatically impact the recovery of youth from drug and alcohol addiction.

The Spokane Valley, Washington-based treatment center for drug and alcohol addicted youth—funded by the Indian Health Services and the State of Washington—houses 45 residents ages 13 to 17 years old, most of whom are American Indian. In the lodge’s 23 years of operation, “probably at least half the federally recognized tribes,” have been represented, Dr. Martina Whelshula, the executive director of the Healing Lodge, told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Three years ago, Ricky “Deekon” Jones, a skills coach at the time and current Expressive Arts program manager, initiated a music-based program. “A lot of kids were getting discharged because of fighting or other aggressive behaviors,” Jones told ICTMN.

He created a survey to find out what the kids enjoyed and needed to move on and become successful. “When they turned it in, it was music,” Deekon said.

Music was right up Deekon’s alley. He studied audio engineering at Spokane Falls Community College and moonlights as a professional musician, performing hip-hop in small venues throughout the West coast and using his audio engineering skills to help other bands record. “I brought some music I produced at home and let them write to the instrumental music,” Deekon said. “The next day, they were in the hallway waiting with music they wrote. I didn’t expect them to be done because many never wrote before.”

Every day, Deekon would bring more music, and the kids would write—generally hip-hop, a popular mode for them to express situations in their life which led to drug and alcohol problems.

“What Deekon does is bring in this therapeutic aspect,” Whelshula said. “He’s drawing it out of them or drawing them into the process. It’s the relationship they build with these kids that pulls them in, that allows them to feel a sense of confidence and comfort. There’s a lot of therapeutic value so profound they build up enough confidence to be able to write the lyrics or rap them.”

Deekon created a CD compilation of songs performed by youth early this year entitled The Dark Road. Fourteen songs tell of the situations leading to addiction and many tell of the changes now aiding their sobriety. A second CD is planned for this fall.

The words are powerful, like this verse by David: “This is bout my pain and about me growin up/I was only 12 I remember throwin up/my liver was weak and my stomach wasn’t strong/at the bottom of the bottle all my feelings were gone/drinkin every day/just to take away the pain/ever since you passed away it hasn’t been the same/now I’m on my own and im making my way/its time for a change and im makin it today.”

Deekon explains that one boy with behavior problems who wouldn’t engage in regular counseling told him that when he leaves he will return to his old ways. Then music helped Deekon break through. “In his first 20-second song segment, the first thing he said was that when he was two years old, his dad got locked up so he had to grow up to be a man on his own. I find out he has abandonment issues that trigger the drug and alcohol issues. He got to the root of the problem and it took one day, instead of 50 sessions (with a counselor).”

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The creation of the Expressive Arts program lead to remarkable improvement in youth maintaining sobriety. An aftercare program that tracks the kids for two years after they leave showed that, prior to the program, 35 to 40 percent of former residents remained sober. “Today it’s about 79 to 80 percent,” Brad Meyers, program development and public relations coordinator, told ICTMN.

Successful results led The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations to apply for the iAward (innovation award) given annually to drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs by The National Institute for Addictions Treatment and the State Associations of Addiction Services.

The success of the program, though still in its infancy, was recognized with an honorable mention iAward from a pool of 49 applicants including major universities and medical facilities. Five winners were chosen: Boston University Medical Center, New York City Health and Hospital Corporation, Preferred Family Health Care of Missouri, GLIDE Health Services from San Francisco and Kentucky River Community Care.

Becky Vaughn, chief executive officer for the State Associations of Addiction Services, commented that The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations was selected, “because of their use of music. While music therapy is not new, what they did with it by cutting albums and burning CDs and having the participants do the music and take part in all of that—that is what made the program innovative. It took music therapy to the next level.”

In addition to using music to treat youth, the Healing Lodge practices a therapeutic and culturally sensitive model. The facility offers traditional American Indian sweat lodges (one for males, one for females), a large medicine wheel, a talking circle, and walking trails amongst coniferous trees and low hills, with a trail leading to a fire pit.

Another treatment method that resonates with youth is the Red Passage Program. “It’s like a rite of passage when young people move from being a child to a young adult. Toward the end of their treatment here they have the option of going up and fasting for two days and two nights by themselves in a teep[pee]. There is a threshold ceremony and they go into that place by themselves,” Whelshula explained.

A staff person will monitor the site to make sure it’s safe, but the young person is left alone. It can be a powerful experience. “Being alone is hard,” Meyers said. “After the teepee, they become the leaders and mentor to younger kids.”

But the music program has proven the most successful. A public reception called “Healing through Hip Hop—An evening down the dark road” was held June 29 to recognize the iAward and the kids involved. “We’re here to come together as a community and family and friends and to celebrate their lives, their health and their music,” Whelshula said.

Three of the songs were played at the ceremony, and three kids performed another song on stage. “I was so amazed at the professional quality of the recording,” Whelshula said, after first hearing the CD. “I was just blown away.”

Bailee Randolph, who had just completed her time at The Healing Lodge earlier that day, noted “It’s an amazing place. The music program helped me look deep into myself. I’m really thankful for this opportunity for a second chance.”