Process and experience of change in the self-perception of women prisoners attending music therapy: The qualitative results of a mixed-methods exploratory study — Helen Odell-Miller, Jodie Bloska, Clara Browning & Niels Hannibal

Volume 13 (1) 2021 – Article (first published on 5 August 2019)

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Process and experience of change in the self-perception of women prisoners attending music therapy: The qualitative results of a mixed-methods exploratory study

Helen Odell-Miller, Jodie Bloska, Clara Browning & Niels Hannibal


Women form a minority (4.8%) in the UK prison system, which is predominantly designed for men. A high number of women prisoners bring experiences of trauma and abuse with them into the system. The incidence of mental health problems is inordinately high compared to the general population. Whilst an increasing number of UK music therapists work in forensic psychiatry, providing treatment for mental disordered offenders, there is a dearth of music therapists working in UK prisons. There is correspondingly little research into music therapy and women prisoners.

The current article presents the qualitative results of a mixed-methods doctoral study carried out by Dr Helen Leith (2014). Using qualitative data, the study investigates whether there is a change in the self-perception of women prisoners attending music therapy and whether, if this is the case, they show an improved ability to engage with prison resettlement interventions. Findings for 10 participants indicated that women prisoners attending music therapy experience a change in self-perception and engagement in music therapy translated into behavioural change outside the music therapy room. Through adaptive interpretative phenomenological analysis of semi-structured interviews, themes indicated that participants showed an increase in self-confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, achievement motivation and a number of other areas relevant to successful resettlement. There was a reduction in the number of self-harm or behavioural incidences and attendance of other programmes improved.

For severely disaffected prisoners, music therapy provided an appealing and motivating intervention, which served as an entry point to other programmes required for resettlement. Women prisoners not only showed an enhanced ability to attend the programmes required for their successful resettlement; music therapy created aspirations, which is of significance to downstream outcomes.


forensic music therapy, women prisoners, self-perception, song-writing

Note by the first author: This article is based entirely on the original research undertaken by Helen Leith, as published in her PhD, and summarises the study in article form. The authors for this article have had different roles in relation to the original manuscript and the subsequent writing of the article. Helen Odell-Miller and Niels Hannibal were supervisors for Leith’s PhD research and as such helped Leith throughout the whole research process. In that sense, we both feel ownership to Leith’s work, and we are both proud and honoured to be associated with this research. In order to give Leith’s ‘voice’ we have kept to the original text as far as possible. Jodie Bloska and Clara Browning, who have assisted with the manuscript, are from Anglia Ruskin University. The article has added material to the original text and incorporated our views and reflections in order to present the unique work Leith carried out prior to her death in 2014. Leith was aware we would eventually publish some of her work, but she could not be listed as an author as, sadly, we had not started writing the article before she died. I am grateful to Niels Hannibal, the other supervisor of her PhD at Aalborg University, and to Jodie Bloska and Clara Browning from Anglia Ruskin University – where Leith’s mobility PhD Fellowship was also based in the UK – who assisted with the manuscript. Leith’s full thesis is freely accessible through Aalborg University (see Leith, 2014).


The late Helen Leith was born in 1958. She studied bassoon and piano at the Musikhochschule Detmold, Germany. She later worked as a youth worker with young German women in France and Great Britain. For 25 years, Helen was a nun in a residential order in London. In 2005, Leith gained her Master in Music Therapy at Nordoff Robbins, London. She worked with women prisoners, from 2008 until her illness took hold, as project manager and delivering music therapist of a ‘through-the-gate’ music therapy project working with female offenders on their pathway through prison and back in to the community. In 2010, she was awarded a Mobility Fellowship by Aalborg University to undertake doctoral research, the qualitative results of which are reported in this article. Sadly, Leith died in 2014, shortly after having delivered her public PhD defence in Cambridge. In a tribute to Leith, it was written that there is ‘no doubt that Helen has made an enormous impact on the prison [in which this research is based], not only in her music therapy work in the room with women, but also within the prison itself’. Helen Odell-Miller OBE is Director and Founder of The Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. She undertook her PhD at Aalborg University, Denmark, and previously gained an MPhil from City University, in 1988. She trained as a Music Therapist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1976 and was a supervisor for Dr Helen Leith’s PhD. [] Jodie Bloska is a Music Therapist and Clinical Research Fellow at The Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research. She studied Music Cognition and Psychology at McMaster University in Canada, where she obtained her BMus, before completing her MA in Music Therapy at Anglia Ruskin University in 2015. [] Clara Browning is a Music Therapist working for Methodist Homes (MHA) and a special needs school in Cambridgeshire. She was previously a music therapy research assistant at Anglia Ruskin University, when she contributed to the work of this article. She studied Music at the University of Durham and completed her Masters in Music Therapy in 2017. [] Niels Hannibal was born in 1960 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He graduated as a Music Therapist from Aalborg University in 1994 and defended his PhD in the same place in 2001. He is an Associate Professor in Music Therapy at Aalborg University, and was supervisor for Dr Helen Leith during her PhD research. Since 1995, he has worked as a Music Therapist in psychiatry, which is also his primary area of research. []