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Music therapists' 5-year push for state certification continues

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Music therapists in Missouri who are fighting to institute statewide certification for the profession say that will improve access to patients and secure quality patient care.

“Potentially, there are people who are working in the state of Missouri under the title of music therapist that don’t actually have the credentials, the national certification, and the training to actually do the work,” said Maria Morris, a board-certified music therapist.

Morris, who lives in St. Louis, grew up loving to play the piano and wanted to use this skill to help people. To qualify as a board-certified music therapist, individuals must receive training and pass a regular recertification process. However, there is no state certification that ensures that Missourians who call themselves music therapists have completed their training and demonstrated their professional aptitude. So she got involved in the effort to develop a statewide certification process in 2010.

Therapists’ support of certification stems from the urge to protect both patients and their profession. As the law stands now, anyone with a guitar can bill himself as a music therapist without having ever received proper training. According to music therapists, this can actually cause more distress in patients.

Conditions and behaviors can be exacerbated by exposure to incorrect music experiences. It’s not just a question that uncertified and untrained “music therapists” could be ineffectual. Depending on the situation, music can heighten discomfort and that can be expressed in negative behaviors. 

“The music sometimes brings up issues or behaviors and if you don’t have the training and experience to handle those things, sometimes you can leave a person in a worse situation than before you started whatever music activity,” said Morris. 

According to therapists, certification would also improve access to some populations that may not be receiving appropriate care. Morris used to work in schools with students with autism who only opened up to the world through musical exposure. When given rote verbal instruction, the students didn’t engage.

“Music was the one avenue that was interesting and engaging for them so they could learn information through that modality that they couldn’t learn in other settings,” Morris said.  She would teach them about counting and money through song.

Currently children under the age of 3 are unable to receive aid for music therapy. State-assisted programs including First Steps and the use of Department of Mental Health waivers don’t recognize music therapy as a treatment option in part because there’s no state licensing to ensure the practice’s legitimacy.

This also applies to rural populations that might not have easy access to musical therapists. Without certification, the state is unable to support efforts to improve this access.

Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, has worked with musical therapists throughout the state to draft a bill that would create a state-certification process for musical therapists. As a certified nurse, Swan says she understands the nuance and value of music therapy.

“It is not simply a musician coming in to play, it is a health-care professional coming in who has been trained on the impact of music on the brain or the other body systems regarding pain and Alzheimer's and memory and with autistic children,” said Swan.

The bill made it to committee in 2015 and died there. Critics said it was an unnecessary governmental regulation. But Swan has not been dissuaded. She has pre-filed aversion of the bill for the upcoming legislative session.