Better With Music – Thea Tolentino’s Pursuit of Music Therapy as Mental Health Treatment

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MANILA, Philippines – This Filipino pre-school and music teacher is on a mission to bring licensed music therapy to the Philippines (and you can pitch in).

Last year, the Department of Health declared that 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depressive disorder. The WHO reported that 800,000 die due to suicide each year and is the leading cause of death for people between 15 to 29 years old. Although standard mental health treatments are available in the Philippines, proper care for psychological and psychiatric needs are out of financial reach for the working class Filipino. Free government mental healthcare on the other hand, face a grave lack of practicing professionals and decent facilities.

THE TEACHER TAKES INITIATIVE
But the alarming and steadily rising number of mental illness cases has created a demand for alternative and more and more accessible mental health treatments. Thea Tolentino, a pre-school and music teacher has taken it upon herself to offer one such solution: licensed music therapy.

The current statistic shows that 1 in 4 people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. As a result, we are virtually surrounded by those who are in dire need of mental healthcare. When Thea became aware that people in her family, among her friends, colleagues and even students belonged to this population, she knew she had to be more proactive about it.

OBSERVING BEHAVIOR AND THE POWER OF MUSIC

As a teacher, Thea is equipped with a deep understanding of developmental psychology. This knowledge is applied everyday as she tries to connect with students from all sides of the spectrum. In her classes, Thea witnessed the positive behavioral and emotional response of students to music. ”Whenever we need to feel uplifted, Filipinos are wired to turn to music. I thought that there really must be a connection to music and healing in the way our brains respond to it.” This prompted her to further look into the clinical scope of music therapy and begin her personal advocacy.

SEARCHING FOR A MENTOR

In Thea’s research she found that Music Therapy was in fact an internationally established health profession. In Music Therapy, clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions are applied within a therapeutic relationship to address, emotional, cognitive, social and even physical needs of an individual to improve their quality of life. Thea also recognized the possibilities of it as a more holistic, accessible and less-stigmatized form of mental health treatment. She volunteered with Celeste Sanchez—the pioneer of music therapy in the country and looked into other music therapy professionals and courses in the Philippines. She discovered that what was available in the country was just the tip of the Music Therapy iceberg. With this came the realization that we do not currently have board-certified music therapists in the Philippines. Board-certified music therapists are professionals who have earned credentials from the Certification Board for Music Therapists—the international organization that certifies those who have met predetermined education, clinical training and certification requirements to practice at the current level of profession. This led Thea to further investigate the certification board requirements and found that it only credits degree holders from a very narrow list of college and university programs. Once she read through this, she knew where she had to begin.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR

Last year, Thea began the long and tedious application process for the Masters in Music Therapy Program at the University of Melbourne—and she got accepted. Her panelists informed her that she is the first-ever Filipino to be admitted. This highly-specialized and exclusive program will enable Thea to learn directly from the likes of Dr. Katrina Skewes McFerran and Felicity Baker who are not only experts of the field but are literally the ones who wrote the books on music therapy. This program is one of the few accredited courses for the Music Therapy Board Exam which will then earn her the license to practice as the first-ever board-certified Music Therapist in the Philippines.

 

BRINGING IT HOME

Thea is a planner. A characteristic that perhaps helped her get into UNIMELB in the first place. Naturally, she has already drawn up what she wants to accomplish once she gets back.

In these plans, Thea hopes to introduce individualized music therapy to students diagnosed with stress, anxiety and depression. Simultaneously, she intends to develop a curriculum to mentor other educators on the application of music therapy in their own contexts. The masterplan plan is to kickstart a mentoring program that will equip public school teachers and healthcare workers with the knowledge and tools to embed music therapy in school systems and local health care centers in an effort to make music therapy interventions free and accessible to people in underserved communities.

 

WHY WAIT TO CHANGE LIVES

Even before she got accepted at the University of Melbourne, Thea was already changing lives with music. Early last year, for example, she gave a pro-bono ukulele workshop to breast cancer patients and survivors. She believed that teaching them to play music with a beginner-friendly instrument would empower and give them a much-needed sense of agency.  But based on the feedback she received from the attendees, the effect was more than that. They took with them a way to inject joy and hope once again into their daily lives.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HER FRIENDS (AND SUPPORTERS OF HER CAUSE)

As expected, education programs abroad don’t come cheap. Thea applied for grants and scholarships to shoulder the expenses but unfortunately she isn’t scheduled to hear from them until after the first semester. Meanwhile, she has used up her savings and acquired loans from family to pay for her enrollment. To help pay for other necessary expenses, she also set up a fundraiser.

On February 13, Thea and her friends will be hosting a fundraising gig at Tomato Kick Tomas Morato called Better With Music. In the lineup are artists and bands who support the cause: Noel Cabangon, Tarsius, The Diegos, Bras Pas Pas Pas Pas, Toni B, and many others. Ticket sales go to Thea’s Music Therapy Education fund. Each ticket is also a raffle entry to win some cool prizes. Everyone is invited to come and contribute.

Thea believes that Filipinos deserve the highest level of music therapy and this makes the  long and laborious process worth it. She hopes that those who also believe in the power of music and those who want an alternative, science-backed and board-certified mental health treatment available in the Philippines will show their support. This pre-school and music teacher has orchestrated a way to make our lives better with music and everyone, including you, can play a part.

Resources:

WHO World Health Report:
https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/

Challenges of Mental Health Treatment in the PH
https://businessmirror.com.ph/2019/09/05/phl-confronts-costs-effects-of-issues-on-mental-health/

DOH Mental Health Statistics
https://www.doh.gov.ph/national-mental-health-program

Certification Board for Music Therapist Website

https://www.cbmt.org/

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