Using music to break barriers in homelessness, mental health

September 26, 2017 - 2458 views

In a session here at Psych Congress, Vijay Gupta, MM, director of Street Symphony and violinist, illustrated the power of music in mental health and homelessness.

Gupta established Street Symphony, a classical music outreach non-profit organization that performs for homeless and criminalized individuals in Los Angeles.

The session began with a performance of a Schumann piece by Gupta and his colleagues.

According to Gupta, Schumann struggled with mental illness himself, as did Bach, Beethoven and several other famous classical musicians.

“[I began to realize] in this music, I wasn’t just telling the story of some dead white guy,” Gupta said. “But I was telling the story of generations of people that have experienced that kind of pain and that kind of trauma, and that music was in some way a kind of metabolism for this pain and grief and trauma.”

In the last 4 years, Street Symphony has performed approximately 200 free live musical events with the Los Angeles community, including Skid Row, the greater Los Angeles area and Los Angeles County jails.

Social workers and clinicians have said that the best time to provide therapy for these criminalized populations was after Street Symphony performances, according to Gupta.

Over time, Street Symphony has transitioned from outreach to engagement to deliver musical experiences “that are transformative for audiences and performers,” Gupta said.

Performances have introduced Gupta to numerous individuals who benefitted from the events.

He spoke of one individual in particular, Don Garza, a Desert Storm veteran who served in Kuwait and was rejected by family when he returned home. He began experiencing nightmares and other PTSD symptoms and attempted to seek treatment but never received it.

Garza ended up in Los Angeles and was homeless for 10 years. Recently, he performed Handel’s “Messiah” for Street Symphony.

“The moment we moved from outreach, where we were the professionals, into engagement, where we were moving from problems to questions of possibilities and curiosity and invitation and welcome ... we made space for the stories and lives and talent of people like Don Garza,” Gupta said. “We moved from playing just concerts into really being the community ... teaching artistry and hiring composers that can write pieces of music that told a story of those communities.”

Now, Gupta said, the work is going even further within the communities, helping individuals understand how artists can be advocates, both with and without instruments, for the lives and stories of people who experience homelessness.

“What art and music gives us is a chance to ... take pause and take account of all of the stuff that we witness: the trauma, the grief, the joy, the desire, the longing for belonging. Music gives us that space to be vulnerable with each other, to actually feel,” he said. – by Amanda Oldt


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