TRAP Therapy in Milwaukee uses hip-hop, R&B to increase access to mental health care

The music is the bridge and encourages people to have a conversation about their mental and emotional well-being.

The music is the seed and plants the idea of ​​what therapy is like, especially for black and brown people who are dealing with stigmas, shame or barriers to treatment.

Milwaukee-based social worker Tarsha Wiggins wants the music from her TRAP Therapy sessions to change lives by using hip-hop, R&B and electronic dance music with groups to expand who has access to mental health care.

“It’s just the power of music,” she said on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” on Wednesday. “Bet that favorite tune comes on, it releases those endorphins, that serotonin in the brain. That ‘feel good’ comes over you.”

Wiggins, who founded Speak Wellness Behavioral Health Counseling, said the song “POWER” by Ye (formerly called Kanye West) is a great example of how she connects uplifting or energizing music with psychology.

She used the cognitive-behavioral therapy model. When people think they are unloved, unworthy and helpless, the thoughts become beliefs, she said. Then the beliefs flow into work and relationships.

What needs to happen to change that thinking? How should one challenge those thoughts?

“Nobody, nobody thought, nobody can have more power over you,” Wiggins said, referring to the lyrics to “POWER.”

Wiggins sees gaps in services that deserve more attention. In 2018, 58.2 percent of black and African American young adults with severe mental illness did not receive treatment, according to Mental Health America. The percentage was almost 10 points lower among the elderly. McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard University Medical School, found that about 25 percent of black Americans seek mental health care — 15 percentage points less than white Americans.

“It was culturally accepted to self-medicate rather than seek mental health treatment,” Wiggins said, reflecting on her time working with families as a child protection social worker.

In addition to stigma, Wiggins said people in vulnerable positions don’t want to be respected or mistreated. She said it’s extremely important for black and brown people to see counselors who are like them and have some shared life experiences, and perhaps better understand historical trauma from racism in the medical world.

Other barriers to accessing mental health services include work hours, insurance, and money.

Wiggins said she needs to build rapport with potential clients and emphasizes how social media can excite people before coming to sessions. She said social media is a way she plants a seed and makes others think about skills like boundaries, coping or mindfulness.

“I did that work before most people walked in the door,” she said.

People are welcomed with big smiles, music, food and drink, Wiggins said.

“Walking through the door at TRAP Therapy makes you feel like you’re at home, and that’s intentional,” she said. “When you enter a space where most people look like you, talk like you, dress like you, you feel like you’re at home.”

As soon as the music plays and people feel good, the group starts having awkward conversations that can change lives. The best part of the sessions, she said, is when people feel comfortable enough to open up.

“I take it to heart that I have sometimes created a space for more than 100 African American or black (people) in the city of Milwaukee where we can come together and have very vulnerable conversations about mental health,” she said. †

In May, Wiggins held a TRAP therapy session for women and a session for children. She said that when people look at their physical health, they should look at their own mental well-being in the same way.

She said the services are there and ready to help people. She wants to build the bridge and plant the seed.

“The City of Milwaukee, guys, we live in a great city here with just a wealth of resources,” she said.

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