Saturday, August 13, 2011

Top 5 Music Therapy Activities for In-Patient Psychiatric Groups: #1 The Mandala

I currently have the opportunity to work once a week with a group of male patients in an acute, in-patient, psychiatric setting. The group I see is part of a larger series of psychosocial rehabilitation classes aimed at helping patients stabilize, recover and move back out into society. My group is titled as "Music Expression." We do a huge variety of activities during this group, but I wanted to share some of the ones that are almost guaranteed to be successful! These music therapy interventions also work well with female patients or in co-ed step-down settings. The first activity I will share, although in no particular order of importance, is the mandala activity:

Group Mandala: Traditionally, a mandala was a circular art piece that served to center the mind and spirit in an art form from Asia. In modern art, the mandala form has been used for all kinds of different themes and formed out of a variety of art materials. Some of the purposes of using a mandala in therapy could be to increase focus of attention, self-awareness or as an activity that re-centers and structures time, space and focus. A mandala is usually an individual project, but can also be effectively employed as a group project. There are many possibilities for encouraging social interaction and problem-solving during group work where the participants must either combine their individual mandalas into one piece or work to create a single mandala together at the same time.

I have found that chalk and oil pastels are the best medium for encouraging this activity in the psychiatric setting. Although the oil pastels look like crayons, they can be presented as professional artist tools and are desirable because of their blending properties. I like to pre-cut circles for the experience, but only in the interest of time and to maintain patient distance from sharps. Some would say that the actual making of the circle is also important, so you will have to decide on your own approach. Large roll paper (i.e., 36" wide) works great for making the large circle for a group mandala. Smaller pieces of drawing paper can be used to make circles for individuals. A circle about 1 foot in diameter is a good size for one person.

If you are doing one large mandala, then you have several options. You may want to divide up the circle into pie sections and have everyone work on one section. One way to adapt this is to periodically rotate the mandala so that everyone has a chance to work on each pie section. Not only does this increase social interaction, but it also contributes to the sense of group cohesion since each person must "give away" their sole ownership of a piece of the art work. You can also establish an overall theme and allow the group to create the mandala through group decisions from the start. Any of these options are easily facilitated by music. Music may lend a theme to the experience or even suggest imagery through lyrics or composition. If the mandala is being rotated, for example, you can have a different song play for each time the mandala is turned. Each song structures the element of time and provides guidance to connect the art with an overall theme.

I have also successfully facilitated a group mandala by having each participant create his own smaller mandala and then adding it to a large mandala created by the group. The group is tasked with deciding how to combine the individual circles and whether or not to leave them intact or cut them up. I have examples of both below. The mandala that was created by cutting up the individual circles was put together by students in an art therapy class. The mandala with the the intact pieces placed in a circle around a central mandala was created by a group of in-patient participants. Although this picture has been blurred to protect patient identity, you can still see the structure of how they put the mandala together. The art product turned out to be a beautiful piece, but the group dynamics and process that occurred in its development were the more amazing results of the activity.

The group mandala done by the art therapy students did not have a theme, but was left entirely up to the group. I did, however, facilitate the participants in my psychiatric group by playing music with imagery or rhythmic music to encourage kinesthetic coloring while they were working individually. I played music with lyrics that included key words like, "help," "friendship," "together," etc. during the time that they were trying to decide as a group how to organize and combine their art into a group mandala. Although live music may have been ideal, I used recorded music since I was required to be moving around the room facilitating the process.

I have successfully used the mandala activity in a variety of settings and with many different therapeutic populations. My experience in using this art directive with some kind of combined music facilitation has always proved to be a beneficial therapeutic intervention in the psychiatric setting. I definitely suggest giving it a try! Please feel free to share your experiences with me. I would love to hear your stories and comments!


  1. Glad you decided to do a whole post on this, Daniel! A thought I had as I read through was that creating mandalas might be a nice thing for people to keep their hands busy when they first come in to a new group and have some anxieties about being with the music more directly.

    And I think you and I had noted (somewhere in our Twitter conversation) the benefits of mandalas as a tool for self-exploration as therapists.

  2. Yes, I think you're right! Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Thanks for the post about how to incorporate mandalas as a group activity listening to music!
    I have used mandalas but everyone does them individually......I like the idea of a collective piece!

    -Anonymous, LMHC worker


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