Stephen Brennan

Update: Stephen Brennan is the recipient of the 2018 UPCEA Outstanding Professional Education Student Award, which recognizes an adult student who has met the challenge of an unconventional educational background and, through individual growth while in pursuit of his educational goals, become an inspiration to others. (He is now a full-time counselor at Nuway.) Watch his brief video acknowledging this award.

Stephen Brennan has always loved music. Like a lot of boys in high school, he was in a band. As an undergraduate sociology major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, he traveled to Ghana, West Africa, for three-and-a-half months with an ethnomusicologist and fellow drummer from Ghana. The trio witnessed marriages, funerals, and different rites of passage where music and dancing played significant roles. The experience, and his love of drumming, stayed with him.

Finding a Rhythm

Stephen Brennan

For years, Brennan worked as a manager in the food industry, traveling and playing music when he could. The restaurant business was fine, but he realized that it was his interactions with the staff—the training, personnel development, and relationships—that made him stay. He decided to pursue a more fulfilling career in the health services. Rather than customers, he wanted clients.

Brennan found a home in the Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Behavioral Health, where students examine the integration of mental health and addiction services. "That’s the direction the field is headed. It’s really hard to have the addiction part without the mental health part.”

Soon after he started the IBH program, Brennan was hired as a program director at Arrigoni House, a sober living facility, in Saint Paul. “It was my first job in the mental health or substance abuse area. It was a great opportunity, and I learned a ton.”


He left Arrigoni House after about a year and a half to focus on his studies. After he graduates, Brennan will be eligible for two different licenses: the LADC (licensed alcohol and drug counselor) and the LPCC (licensed professional clinical counselor). He’ll then search for a location where he can earn the 4,000 hours of supervised professional practice he needs to become fully licensed.

"It’s really hard to have the addiction part without the mental health part.”

Brennan is also a recipient of the President’s Student Leadership and Service Award, a Nolte-Miller Scholarship, and a NAADAC (Association for Addiction Professionals) Minority Fellowship. The fellowship provides a tuition stipend, mentorship, and training for students who are committed to working with underserved populations.

“Working at the sober house and in the food industry have been real learning experiences for me,” Brennan says. “I started to see the world through other people’s eyes. I’ve travelled to Africa and South America, playing drums with different cultures. When I saw this fellowship opportunity, I wanted to apply, to put myself in a position where I could continue to learn.”

And the Drumming?

On his most recent trip to northern Ghana, Brennan’s goal was to get a sense of how people there deal with mental health concerns. “First of all, it’s just not really talked about," he says. "But with music, everybody’s involved—musicians, dancers—everyone circles around clapping and singing. Everyone goes and participates no matter their limitations.”

Stephen Brennan

He realized that expressing their part in a community was a type of therapy. The emotion and energy generated by coming together through music can be cathartic; it isn’t always intentional, but it can be healing nonetheless.

Brennan hopes to one day translate those unifying drum circles into a group therapy dynamic here in the US. “Music can be used by people who have experienced trauma and PTSD, to make them feel safe in order to be open to other types of treatment. It can decrease hypervigilance and anxiety.” He acknowledges that this will require more research and training. 

For one, he explains, music from northern Ghana “is very buzzy and might sound rough to our ears.” It is characterized by talking drums, bass drums with leather straps tied across the skin that vibrate, shakers, flutes, and singing.

“Music is a binding part of these communities,” he says. “As soon as the drums start, dozens of kids start coming out.”

Favorite Course

Multicultural Foundations of Behavioral Health

Advice for Future Students

“The most important thing I’ve learned is self-care. In a service-oriented field, you need to take care of yourself, because you hear some tough stuff. You meet people who have been through the ringer, and you need to feel good so you can be there for them.”