Stressed, depressed Chinese embrace therapy with 'less stigma': music

Not just for the rich, healing through trained music therapists is becoming an accepted practice amid taboos over psychotherapy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 10:16am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2014, 3:15am

Stressed-out mainlanders are turning to music therapy to help them relax, a treatment that carries less of the social stigma than sessions with a psychologist.

At the private, membership-only Ciming Oasis Hospital in Beijing, a one-hour session with a music therapist costs up to 1,000 yuan (HK$1,260) per hour on top of the annual membership fee, which can cost up to 15,000 yuan.

“Most of our clients are upper middle-class, from all ages and backgrounds,” said Hu Lin, a music therapist at Ciming. “They see me for different reasons – some have been clinically diagnosed, some are having trouble in their lives, others just want to de-stress”.

Therapists employ the qualities of music such as sound, rhythm and harmony to treat a range of physical and emotional conditions from depression and anxiety to dementia and autism.

“There is still a social shame factor,” said Wang Lujie, a professor of music therapy at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. “People don’t want to be called crazy because they’re seeing a therapist.”

There is still a social shame factor. People don’t want to be called crazy because they’re seeing a therapist
Wang Lujie, professor

Hu and other music therapists never use the term “patient”, preferring “client” or “visitor”.

Rising prosperity in large cities like Beijing has been feeding the insatiable tastes of the country’s growing middle class, whose consumption is seen as the key to sustaining a three-decade economic boom.

Hu attributes income woes, societal pressures and natural disasters as the main reasons for the rise of interest in music therapy

“Circumstances like rising property prices are making people nervous; clients are worried about their future,” he said.

But music therapy is not only reserved for the rich. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, four centres now offer music therapy sessions for between 50 yuan to 200 yuan per hour.

Wang believes the treatment allows clients to relax and communicate in a way that traditional therapies cannot.

“Some of my colleagues who work in talking therapy tell me, ‘This client spent so many hours and so much money on his sessions, why is he still lying to me?’ Clients are naturally very defensive towards traditional psychotherapies, but music breaks down all those barriers,” she said.

Hu has had similar experiences.

“I worked with homeless children on a pro bono basis, but it’s difficult because they don’t trust adults,” Hu said. “They don’t want to talk to us, but music helps them communicate their pain.”

In 2009, China invested 40 million yuan in research projects on preventing depression, identifying mental illness and dealing with stress, the scientific journal Nature reported.

According to the World Health Organisation’s Mental Health Atlas, China had 1.53 psychiatrists and 0.18 psychologists per 100,000 people in 2011, compared with the United States with 7.79 psychiatrists and 29.03 psychologists per every 100,000 people.

In the past, mental health resources were scarce in China, but the trend was changing quickly, Wang said.

“Many of the projects we worked on in 2012 and last year, such as with homeless shelters, non-profit organisations, and schools, had tremendous government support,” Wang said.

Hu agreed, adding that “before, if a student wanted to undergo music therapy he or she would have to go to the US. Now, many Chinese universities are offering the courses, which contribute to our profession’s rising popularity.

“They can learn methodology in the US. Many of our students do that,” Wang said. “But they all want to practice in China, which has a better environment and better market for music therapy.”