Dr. Lee Norton
MusiCares Partner Profile: Dr. Lee Norton's Lifesaving Trauma Work
The mass shooting on the Las Vegas strip on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, during the Route 91 Harvest music festival had a devastating impact on the music community, for both the artists who participated in the festival and the concertgoers in attendance.
Such an event can also have a major impact on the mental health of those exposed to such a trauma. This event was particularly distressing for several reasons, including that the environment in which it occurred was generally considered safe, festivalgoers and artists were exposed to a combat situation without warning, and much of the event was unintentionally broadcast to the viewing public, including the loved ones of concertgoers.
Immediately following the attack, trauma experts such as Dr. Lee Norton, founder of the Center For Trauma Therapy in Nashville, Tenn., were notified to provide support to victims as they returned home. By Tuesday following the Las Vegas shooting, Norton helped treat victims who had returned to Nashville. By Wednesday, MusiCares and Music Health Alliance partnered to present a town hall for victims where Norton and others spoke about the dynamic of mass casualty. And by the next week, Norton went out to support Jason Aldean's tour, as he was performing the festival's closing set when the shooting occurred, where she stayed for two weeks.
Given these quick response efforts and the resilience of the music community, which Norton has identified as a strength, the outcomes for those she worked with following the shooting have been positive.
"One of the greatest predictors of how well an individual or group will heal from a trauma is the response by the community," Norton says. "We now know that transparency and support are essential to good outcomes, which is why I have been so pleased with the way that the music community has come together to create a safe container for healing. But there is more work to do."
"I've found [musicians] to be naturally buoyant and optimistic, and to possess flexible and effective coping skills."
Norton, now a leading member of the field in treating trauma, was first introduced to trauma work as a student.
"In graduate school, I worked for an investigator, and quickly realized how much of the population had experienced overwhelming stress and had few resources with which to address it," Norton says. "I continually saw the same symptoms and that the inability to integrate stressful events into a coherent narrative affects all spheres of functioning — love, work and play."
From there Norton studied under experts such as Charles Figley, PhD, at the Trauma Institute at Florida State University, and Lou Tinnin, M.D., at the Institute for Trauma Therapy where she was completing a post-doctoral fellowship when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led her to work for months with first responders, survivors and their families.
She also had the opportunity to both learn and teach about the "history of the study of trauma, the signs and symptoms of acute and chronic [stress], and how to assess and treat [post-traumatic stress disorder] and related disorders," which, in addition to her private practice, is a mission she remains committed to in her work today.
Among the populations Norton works with are musicians, in part thanks to her partnership with MusiCares and the charity's lifesaving work.
"I first learned about MusiCares a few years ago, when a client was referred for treatment but had no financial resources," Norton says. "I was astonished by how loving and supportive Debbie Carroll and her team here in Nashville were, not only toward the client but to me as well. I have since shared many clients with MusiCares [in] Nashville to very good effect and I still receive kind, generous notes of thanks for my contribution."
This partnership is important because, for artists, the potential to be adversely affected by trauma is always right around the corner because of the unpredictable nature of being a working musician. There's traveling on buses, being away from home and loved ones, the obligation of never missing a show, and the seemingly endless pressure to be creative. Not to mention, many performers have the added stress of public scrutiny.
"[A career in music] requires unusual grit and perseverance that can exceed the limits of even the most resourceful person," Norton says. "When an additional stressor is added to the equation — the death or illness or a loved one, an accident, financial loss, or divorce — it may tip the balance away from wellness and toward disorder of extreme stress."
When left untreated, these stresses can lead to bigger mental health issues. According to Norton, about 70 percent of Americans will experience a traumatic stressor at some point in their lives and 20 percent of these will meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Unresolved trauma can also be a huge factor in substance abuse issues.
"Trauma is intensely dysregulating; it can affect sleep-wake cycles, appetite, mood, and how we perceive events. Trauma makes us feel unsafe within ourselves, with others and in our environment," Norton says. "Self-medication is logical because it changes the chemicals that dictate how we feel … and in the short-run they provide relief. The problem is that in addition to becoming ineffective, drugs, alcohol and illicit activities eventually result in result in increasing problems."
The good news is that by seeking treatment with professionals such as Norton, as well as opening up and supporting each other as a community, resolving trauma within the music industry is very attainable.
"One of the most important things that we have learned about traumatic stress over the past 20 years is how treatable it is," Norton says. "I have now worked with dozens of individuals in the music industry and have been impressed by how quickly they respond to education about trauma and integrate traumatic events. As a group, I've found them to be naturally buoyant and optimistic, and to possess flexible and effective coping skills. The result is that even minimal intervention of traumatic stress can be sufficiently potent to resolve many obstacles."
As for her continuing partnership with MusiCares, there's a lot to look forward to.
"I do not know of any organization that serves its members with greater affection and devotion," Norton said. "I am honored to be a partner of an organization of such integrity and commitment."