How music therapy can help rebuild the lives of refugees

Over the past 20 years, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes around the world by conflict has reached more than 90 million. This has more than doubled since the early 1990s, a time period labeled by the United Nations Refugee Agency as the decade of displacement. This growth rate shows no signs of slowing down and has been fueled by the current situations in Syria and Ukraine.

Whatever the reason for the displacement, there is no doubt that being forced to leave one’s homeland is traumatic. The journey to a safer place can be physically and emotionally demanding. Shock and denial are often the first emotions experienced by refugees.

Long-term problems include unmanageable emotions, flashbacks, and relationship difficulties. Physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches may also occur. While practical support such as providing physical security, food and clothing, and medical care is essential, psychological support must also be offered.

Music therapy

Music therapy is well positioned to provide support in coping with trauma and promote well-being. It is a psychological therapy regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in the United Kingdom. Music therapists use a variety of music-based interventions, including making interactive music, writing songs, and listening to music. These help build a therapeutic relationship with the participants.

Music therapy offers a flexible and accessible way to support well-being and share difficult experiences. It can also bring positive reminders of the cultures refugees come from. These can be shared with others and help build resilience.

In the early stages of trauma, music can be part of a psychological first aid (PFA) package. PFA is usually offered in the aftermath of a traumatic event as well as in the aftermath. Try to provide people with security, connections, and hope. Integrating these elements into music-based interventions and music therapy is beneficial for refugees.

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Music is something found in every culture. People bring their musical experiences with them wherever they go and can ask them for comfort. Music can also be a go-to resource for those in need of comfort. With such a huge range of musical genres and styles, there’s something for everyone.

Because music is made up of a number of different patterns, something the brain is drawn to and actively seeks out, there are opportunities for emotional regulation. This is essential to support the welfare of refugees.

Additionally, making music with a music therapist soon after the trauma provides an opportunity to build relationships, stabilize feelings, and reduce anxiety. These are crucial steps in mitigating the impact of trauma.

A boy and a man sit down at a table.  The boy is playing a colorful xylophone.
Music is made up of a number of different patterns, something the brain is drawn to and actively seeks out.
Pixel Shot/Shutterstock

In the course of my research, I have worked with a range of displaced people, including refugees and asylum-seeking families, focusing on families with children under the age of 3. My studies have shown that people who have had music therapy find it helpful and supportive for a variety of reasons.

It offers a safe space to meet others in music without the need for words or explanations. This space supports the development of feelings of security and the awakening of creativity, something vital for mental health. Music therapy also fosters and builds connections with others in the same situation.

My projects have used PFA core principles related to music therapy for small groups of asylum seeker families from Albania, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan. The simple, structured activities required minimal English, so they were accessible.

Movement to the music, communication through rhythm games, free improvisation and songs from the participants’ home countries, as well as music from the UK were all used to engage the groups. This has helped the families feel a sense of belonging in their new home.

Feel safe

The predictability of session content was also helpful. People experiencing trauma need help to feel safe and providing a structured session does this. They have also facilitated the development of language and social skills for children.

The bond as a family, something that can be broken by trauma, has also been enhanced. To support this therapists can use lullabies and children’s songs from the families original cultures as well as the UK based tunes Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is ever so popular.

Music and music therapy are useful tools to employ in PFA planning and ongoing therapeutic support for refugees. While it is important to be sensitive to the wishes of refugee families who may not be ready to engage in musical activities, it is crucial that this provision is available to those who wish to access it.

Refugees who engage in music and music therapy in their new homes often report improvements in their ability to handle their situation and move forward. Finding ways to provide broader access to these opportunities will benefit more of those looking to build a new life for themselves.

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