Doctor uses music to heal troubled minds

Published: 18/04/2009 05:00



Psychiatrist Dr Nguyen Van Tho treats a patient at National Mental Hospital 2 in Dong Nai Province. The doctor has spent the last 40 years developing treatment using music.

Never underestimate the power of music, says psychiatrist Dr Nguyen Van Tho. It can heal people.

Tho should know. He has spent years researching the effects of music therapy on psychiatric patients and is a pioneer of the Guided Image and Music. He now works at National Mental Hospital 2 in Bien Hoa District in the southern province of Dong Nai.

The doctor has countless cases on file that he can use to prove his point. As an example, he refers to one patient at the hospital, Le Van Tan*, a diagnosed schizophrenic.

It’s next to impossible to read Tan’s turbulent past from his appearance, he is tall, smart and attentive. This was not the case when he first arrived, Tho tells us.

Tan, once a famous painter, was diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 10 years ago. His parents had died and his brother couldn’t cope with his violent tantrums and paranoia so he sent him to live in the hospital.

To treat Tan, Dr Tho played a recording of the classical piece In a Perian Market by Albert William Ketelbey. He asked Tan to lie on the bed and close his eyes, saying nothing around him could hurt him.

“The first time I tried it, Tan jumped up and ran away,” Tho says.

“It wasn’t until the fourth time that I managed to keep him calm and he finally sparked an interest in the music.”

The music helps people with this kind of illness escape the confines of their imagination, the doctor says.

“Most patients with mental illnesses cannot relate to reality. Classical music is very useful for them to open their mind. They have a tour of their subconscious world and step by step I help them escape it.”

Band aid

In a larger room in the hospital, a group of patients play musical instruments and sing together. The thinking behind the choir is the same as Tan’s treatment, the doctor says.

“Listening and playing music helps my patients cope with their mental illnesses and helps them lead normal lives,” he says.

But the fruits of his efforts didn’t materialise overnight. It has cost Dr Tho a lot of sleepless nights to develop his research to this level.

“I first thought about getting the patients to play instruments when I came across the T’rung, a traditional musical instrument played by the Tay Nguyen ethnic group.

“Me and my artist friend The Vien took the T’rung to pieces and combined it with a Krongput, also from the Tay Nguyen people. We thought this instrument, which looks like a tube of bamboo, would be easy for our patients to play.”

There are six people in the group, with another person acting as the leader. Each instrument is monotone.

“It was extremely hard to get them to play in the beginning,” Dr Tho says.

“It was total chaos. I had to run around trying to get them to sit down and join in. Sometimes, one of them would fall asleep.”

But the doctors eventually managed to coax the patients into playing the music. Now 100 people are treated via the choir, with seven people taking part at a time.

“The choir helps people control their feelings, communicate and work as a team. It’s been a great success, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of my colleagues at the hospital.”

Dynamic doc

Dr Tho was born in 1949 in Ha Noi. He says he has always nurtured a passion for music.

“I had a friend who lived near the office of the Voice of Vietnam radio station. I would go over to his house just to hear musicians and actors practising.”

In 1967, at the height of war, Tho enrolled at the Medical Military University and became a student of Professor Dr Le Hai Chi, head of the Psychiatry Department who knew Tho’s passion for music and tried to convince him to study psychiatry. At the time Professor Chi was researching the benefits of music therapy in treating mental disorders.

Tho was unsure at first, but he began to change his mind as the war fuelled more psychological problems, especially among soldiers returning from the front line.

“I knew it would be tough, but I decided psychiatric therapy was the path for me. I started to study it in 1969. That same year I began studying music.”

When he graduated in 1974, Tho was assigned to work at the university’s psychiatry department. He composed his first song Huong Dem Benh Vien (Hospital’s Fragrant Night) to celebrate the day.

Dr Tho continued composing songs to pep up the soldiers at the front. His repertoire includes Hay Ngu Di Anh (Go to Sleep Friend) in 1975; Giu Lai Su Song Tung Phut Giay (Stay Alive Every Second) and the chorus Nho Ngay Bac Tham Thuong Binh (Remember the Day Uncle Ho Visited War Invalids) in 1981.

The doctor won several gold medals at national military art performances in 1979 and 1984. He was so popular that in 1982 the Air Force Art Troupe invited him to play for them.

Double life

Until this time Tho has been leading two lives: one as a doctor and one as a musician. But in 1990, the Ministry of Health asked him to take the position of deputy director of the National Mental Hospital 2. He became director eight years later.

His job at the hospital finally allowed him to combine his two passions in life: psychiatry and music. In 2008 he won the People’s Physician title for 40 years of contributions to the health sector.

Today life is quiet for the doctor, who lives with his wife in Bien Hoa City. He has two grown-up children, his son is a policeman and his daughter is a lawyer living in Hungary.

Tho’s dreams seem to have come true, but he admits he still suffers from the occasional sleepless night.

“I still worry about people with mental problems wandering the streets having been shunned by society,” he says.

“But most of the time I am reassured that there is support for them out there and I can do a lot to help them.”


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