On the magic of music and notions of mental health

“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”

– Maria von Trapp


In his latest blog post, MMM’s Lead Therapist Justin Cikuru reflects on perceptions of mental health and the ways the Healing in Harmony program is making a difference.

Mental health is a vague concept for some people, especially in rural Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where illness is seen as a bodily suffering. Very few people are aware that they have a mental health problem. 

Mental health issues are often raised by outsiders who observe a change in a person’s behaviour or attitude. This may be accompanied by crises, affecting the harmony of the family, group, or community. The issues are often expressed in behaviour deemed inappropriate, expressed by the state of the person’s mood, and also in the facial and bodily expressions caused by the challenges or negative events they have experienced. 

In the DRC, most people will believe that this behaviour is caused by evil spirits, a curse due to rape, or the consequence of a sin committed, an injustice done, or simply an affliction of the enemy who is jealous of another’s prosperity.

The first thing that Healing in Harmony (HiH) does is to alter this pattern of thinking, in particular in poor and disadvantaged environments, to bring the person back to the centre of everything that happens to them in their life. Through HiH they become aware of their abilities. The program shows them the personal and community resources available that enable them to take control of their life and manage everyday events without guilt or shame, and with reinforced self-esteem.

Through the Healing in Harmony program, youth in rural DRC work with a local therapist and music producer to create songs about their experiences and hopes for the future.

HiH has been successful as a psychosocial intervention in the field of mental health through its methodology and clinical principles.

In a treatment space that offers an atmosphere of benevolence, joy, and pleasure, it uses music – a recognized and globally accepted tool able to generate emotions, facilitate relaxation, relieve distress, and bring pleasure.

With HiH’s clinical approach, mental health becomes a lived reality of the person rather than something based on observations made by others. This reinforces the feeling of healing so that the individual may find a way to cope and move toward the future.

In other words, HiH allows the person to rediscover their voice so that they may speak about their suffering and find a way to pursue their life ambitions. They go through six therapeutic phases including the introduction, familiarisation, verbalization, songwriting, recording, and dissemination of their artistic work. 

The song that is the final product becomes a symbol of new found good mental health. The individual becomes a true artist who attracts interest and admiration. This reinforces their self esteem and ability to reintegrate their community. They gain respect and become a source of inspiration for others who come to understand how music can transform lives and heal life’s wounds.

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The artist becomes a living witness to the transformation from sadness to joy, from tears to smiles, from inactivity to active enthusiasm.

I am always amazed to see the change in the artists after four months of therapy. It’s striking to see the sadness dissipate little by little, giving way to smiles and roars of laughter during the public concerts. It is truly magical. 

A Healing in Harmony artist once told me that she could never imagine that the negative thoughts and injury she suffered following rape could affect her health. She went on to say that she now understands that negative thinking is a disease. Coming from the artist, it was really rewarding. 

And what amazes me the most is that after the group therapy sessions, the artists tell us that for the first time in a long time, they have slept well, they no longer feel tired, and they feel better in their body. This is visible on their face and in their body expression. It is magic.

It’s the best way to popularize the benefits of mental health where without taking medicine, or submitting to mystical religious practice, the person finds relief and expresses it with gratitude. The experience is shared by word of mouth to reach a multitude of people in the community who learn of HiH, the magic power of music it evokes, and the role music can play in the field of mental health.

This is magnified at the community concerts when the audience experiences the emotions exuded by the performers. The artists, who were once considered cursed, possessed, and afflicted by suffering, now stand in front of them stirring up feelings in an atmosphere of joy. 

The music and performance by HiH artists generate feelings of admiration and well-being across the whole community.

I do not know of a more beautiful way to popularize the notion of mental health and the benefits of music to heal inner wounds and traumas of life.

HiH introduces a notion of community-based care and individual self-care where the artist is the symbol and driver of change. They garner respect and consideration from their community and gain the necessary capacity to cope with the misfortunes of life that are inherent in every human being.

Justin Cikuru is Lead Therapist and Trainer on the Make Music Matter team. With a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Daystar University in Nairobi, he began working as a therapist at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2015, at which time he partnered with Make Music Matter to implement their Healing in Harmony program for survivors of sexual violence.

Justin has continued to play an instrumental role in developing and documenting the Healing in Harmony model in different contexts around the world.

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