Healing the Mind Through Music (Second of two parts)


Dr. Malaya Santos

Dr. Malaya Pimentel-Santos is a long-time community health advocate, having worked with several nongovernment health organizations. She is a fellow of the Philippine Dermatological Society and a professor of microbiology at the St. Luke’s College of Medicine.

For comments, msantosmd@hotmail.com

“The spirit, like the body, can be strengthened and developed by frequent exercise. Just as the body, if neglected, grows weaker and finally impotent, so the spirit perishes if untended. And for this reason it is necessary for the artist to know the starting point for the exercise of his spirit.” – Wassily Kandinsky (1910)

The healing properties of the creative arts have long been recognized from both a cultural and philosophical perspective, and the arts are in many ways interwoven with medicine and healing. Esteemed academician and former Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Prof. Felipe de Leon, Jr. wrote an article in 2015 relating Filipino culture and tradition with the healing powers of art. Even as modern culture adapts to globalization and westernization, he cites the deeply rooted Filipino sense of community and inherent spirituality as vital in our unique exercise of creativity.

Another illustration of how art intertwines with medicine is the series of four oil paintings by National artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, collectively titled The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines. These masterpieces, now officially recognized as a national treasure, hung for decades largely unnoticed and exposed to the elements at the main entrance hall of the Philippine General Hospital. In 2011 they were replaced with reproductions, and the carefully restored originals are now on display at the National Museum.

Some might argue that we all begin life with the capability for creative expression. The much-loved story of The Little Prince starts with a lament – as narrated by The Pilot – about how grown-ups somehow manage to quash the enthusiasm and imagination of children, so that these are eventually buried beneath the practical, mundane concerns of life such as geography, history, and mathematics.

The science behind art therapy

The creative arts and their many applications have evolved greatly over the centuries. In the biomedical sciences, a growing body of evidence now exists that supports the use of the arts to promote mental wellbeing for conditions such as cancer, dementia, chronic illness, brain tumors, strokes, post-traumatic stress disorders, and many more. Together with similarly creative methods such as dance, drama, music and poetry, the visual arts have effectively been used as therapy either alone or in combination with other types of psychotherapy.

Stuckey at al (2010) published an extensive literature review on the effects of four modalities: music, visual arts, dance and movement, and expressive writing on various physiological and psychological health outcomes. Their results indicate that engagement in these creative art forms can have significant health benefits. Another study (Puetz et al, 2013) looked into the use of creative arts therapy for patients with cancer, demonstrating beneficial effects on measurable outcomes such as anxiety, depression, pain, and quality of life.

A search of the recent relevant literature reveals even more publications. However, there are numerous challenges and limitations to conducting medical research on the arts, and many of these studies are observational in nature, have relatively small sample sizes, and need a valid control group. Rigorous methodologies are still lacking, due at least in part to the inherent difficulties in evaluating and standardizing art-related treatments. Many authors cite the need for future studies to clearly delineate the scope of creative arts therapies, and to define more consistent qualitative and quantitative research parameters. Moreover, the literature uniformly emphasizes the need for practicing art therapists to be properly trained and certified both in therapy, and in the arts they use for therapy.

Here in the Philippines, art therapy has also been applied in several settings. In Marawi (Ladrido, 2017), a project headed by former Ateneo President Fr. Ben Nebres and artist-entrepreneur Melissa Yeung-Yap conducted art workshops for public school children, as a means to help them attain normalcy in the aftermath of the armed conflict. In Manila (Reuters, 2016), the Centre for Christian Recovery has integrated drawing sessions into the daily therapy, to aid drug dependents undergoing rehabilitation to express their emotions and overcome their addictions.

Appreciating the arts

While talent and creativity may vary greatly among individuals, the appreciation of the aesthetic aspects of art is universal and instinctive. It may be interesting to note that studies have also shown the therapeutic potentials of art appreciation. I recently visited the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was mesmerized to see the paintings and other pieces that I had previously only seen in art classes and poorly printed textbooks: Rembrandt, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, and so many others. I admit to being utterly unskilled and uninitiated; even to my untrained eye, the experience was profound.

I have similarly enjoyed visits to local art hubs and popular travel destinations that showcase equally impressive and diverse collections of art: The National Museum which houses the Juan Luna masterpiece Spoliarium and many other works by our great masters and contemporary artists; the BenCab Museum in Baguio that features the works of National Artist Ben Cabrera; Museo Orlina in Tagaytay City where the creations of famed glass sculptor Ramon Orlina showcased; and the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, brainchild (pun intended) of renowned neurologist and art patron Dr. Joven Cuanang.

The recent passage of RA 11036 or the Philippine Mental Health Act reaffirms the basic right of Filipinos to mental health, and should help to pave the way towards the integration of comprehensive mental health care into the country’s basic health services. By promoting multi-sectoral and community-based partnerships, the hope is that these novel therapies will also be made available and accessible to those who stand to benefit, but may not have the means to pay for the treatments.


Stuckey, H. and Nobel, J. (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), pp.254-263.

Puetz, T., Morley, C. and Herring, M. (2013). Effects of Creative Arts Therapies on Psychological Symptoms and Quality of Life in Patients With Cancer. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(11), p.960.

De Leon Jr., F. (2011). Life as Art – The Creative, Healing Power in Philippine Culture. [online] National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Available at: http://ncca.gov.ph/about-cultureand-arts/in-focus/life-as-art-the-creativehealing-power-in-philippine-culture/ [Accessed 13 Aug. 2018].

Kandinsky, W. and Sadler, M. (n.d.). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. [online] Gutenberg.org. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5321/pg5321-images.html [Accessed 13 Aug. 2018].

The Straits Times. (2016). Drug rehabilitation centre in the Philippines uses art therapy to help addicts. [online] Available at: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/drugrehabilitation-centre-in-the-philippines-usesart-therapy-to-help-addicts [Accessed 18 Aug.2018].

Ladrido, P. (2017). How art helped Marawi children concentrate in school. [online] cnn. Available at: http://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/arts/2017/10/17/marawi-children-artat-earth-kitchen.html [Accessed 18 Aug. 2018].

Sept 2018 Health and Lifestyle

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