Seeing Social Work in the Philippines through a Psychosocial Lens: MAGIS at NASWEI book launch

We commemorated Human Rights Day this year with the National Association for Social Work Education, Inc. (Philippines), at their book launch of The Human Costs of the Philippine War on Drugs: a collection of case studies that poignantly capture the landscape in which social workers all over the country currently focus on.

We were in the company of professionals who have dedicated their careers and lives to the incredible and unique calling of Social Work. This professional field is all too familiar with contexts with profound needs for human dignity: conflict zones, disaster areas, national borders, and communities of poverty. To have a heart in these margins and knots in society is both a tall order and a natural inclination of the human spirit. As keynote speaker Evelyn Balais-Serrano said, “we have common humanity.”

As the field of Social Work goes through a paradigm shift from dealing with welfare, to involving themselves with the all-encompassing and currently controversial landscape of human rights, we are also significantly moved by the need for further deepening of resilience and strength in body, mind, and spirit.

We sincerely thank everyone we met yesterday and for the stories that were shared. We look forward to sharing in the journey of, and helping how these brave helping professionals help themselves and help each other.

1: Keynote Speaker Evelyn Balais-Serrano
2: NASWEI VP – NCR and Executive Director, Dr. Elsa H. Ruiz; with MAGIS Managing Director Kathy V. Ponce
3: NASWEI President, Dr Melba L. Manapol; and VP – Visayas, Ms. Rose Sequitin with MAGIS representatives Kathy (Managing Director), Miah Tanchoco (Assistant Director for Program Management), Adi Santos (Communications Officer)

A Morning with Asian Hospital and Medical Center: Fit for Good



Join us Saturday, November 18 as we share the therapeutic experience of dance and movement through a short talk and workshop with Dance Therapist Joey Atayde. Fit for Good is an initiative of the Asian Brain Institute for raising awareness about living well over the age of 50. The morning will cover a range of topics including physical and mental health and fitness, and an introduction to the Institute’s brain wellness program in context of dementia.

About the Speaker

Joey is a Registered Dance/movement Therapist with the American Dance Therapy Association.  She finished her graduate studies in Dance/Movement Therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.  She has worked with children and adults with mental illness, using movement as a form of psychotherapy and using this to integrate the body, the mind and the spirit.

7 Groups and Projects Changing the Conversation on Mental Health in the Philippines

The last decade has changed the conversation about mental health in a significant way. Here are just a few of the amazing activities happening around the country this week, and local organizations working on helping the country address mental health.

MHACTNow is the official campaign for the Philippines’ first ever Mental Health Act. The petition gathered more than 20,000 signatures, and together with the campaign, it was enough for the government to take action and spark nationwide discourse about its importance. The Bill was approved by the Senate on May 2, 2017, and is currently going through amendments for its final reading. Hopefully, this month of Mental Health Awareness will be topped off with the fantastic news of the Bill’s approval in the House of Representatives.

The Youth for Mental Health Coalition is a 1-year-old organization that has taken leaps in a short span of time. Their strong social media presence that has given Filipino youth a platform to be heard and acknowledged in context of mental health issues, and the Coalition has representatives all over the country.  They are holding the National Youth Congress on Mental Health this September 14, 2017. Check out their lineup of activities for this week as published on Facebook, as well.

MentalHealthPH is an online advocacy that, this week for Mental Health Awareness Week in the Philippines, is taking to universities to be part of talks, forums, and other events. They publish story submissions that capture a poignant snapshot of living with mental health issues, which you can find here.

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Philippines is a professional community that provides psychosocial interventions to victims/survivors of disasters, crises, and emergencies in the Philippines. One of the head trainers and Program Director for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support at the National Center for Mental Health, Ms Thelma Singson Barrera, has activated thousands of psychosocial care providers all over the country through capacity-building in psychosocial support, and been involved with key first-response teams in some of the country’s most devastating disasters. We had a chat with her recently for Mental Health Awareness Week.

“I feel and believe that the awareness on Mental Health has improved in the past years,” she said. “More mental health programs have been established and are successfully in place… and as a post-disaster response, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support is now being recognized as important to be provided to survivors of disaster.” In her career of more than 27 years, Ms Thelma, who began as a hospital-based Mental Health and Psychiatric Nurse before moving into the fieldwork and training she does today, has encountered also the kind of response that stigmatizes the matter: “… if people know you work in a mental hospital, they will give a silly laugh and ask: ‘Don’t you get the disorder too for taking care of the mentally sick patients?’”

As seen in the conversation that transpired after Joey De Leon’s comment about depression and the consequent apology, how we as a society deal with battling stigma is crucial to support and advance mental health initiatives. Responding to lack of awareness with a sincere intention to share and help educate can bring out the lessons in difficult situations.

Self-expression can be a powerful partner for mental wellbeing – it is at the core of what we do at MAGIS as well.  It is not a surprise that there are also wonderful groups and projects that use the arts to have conversations and build an empathic community around mental health: Silakbo PH, Tala: Mental Wellness, Stellar Stranger.

Today, World Mental Health Day, we recognize and salute all the initiatives that have helped to achieve where we are right now with Mental Health. Mental Health can be a sensitive topic. It takes courage to continue the conversation in brave and empathic response to the need of understanding, awareness, and acceptance… and even more so to start it.



Featured image: A mindful prayer activity with MAGIS Creative Spaces, The Learning Child School, and Cartwheel Foundation in THRiVETrauma-informed Healing and Resilience in Vulnerable Environments; a teacher-training program conducted by MAGIS Founder and Director Gina Alfonso.

Thank you to Ms. Thelma Singson Barrera, from the National Center for Mental Health and long-time friend of MAGIS, for speaking with us this week.

Are you part of or do you know of more organizations making a difference for Mental Health in the Philippines? Let us know in the comments or contact us.

Thriving Creatively: the promise of art for healing

Last month, we launched our first run of THRiVE – a psychosocial training program in expressive arts-based approaches to healing and learning in the classroom.  This program is an opportunity for us to create and hold the space for educators to rediscover and be themselves through the ageless method of and tools for expression: art and creativity.

Training educators as people

We started the 4-day intensive standing in a circle, feet hip-width apart, arms stretched out and palms open on either side of us. This moment taught me the power of a standing being. I looked around at our circle. We had come together as 33 educators, coordinators, managers, community builders; but in that moment we were 33 people who were right where they needed to be, 33 stories to be told. The gravity of this collective presence was enough to build us up, a mountain beneath our feet.

To give these individuals space in this way was very important for lead facilitator and MAGIS Director Gina Alfonso. “Each of us has the right to be here. Each of us has a place in this circle and a reason for being here now.” she said.  With so many different journeys that led to the one moment, it was crucial to establish a sense of safety and belonging at the very beginning.   At THRiVE, educators learn to improve the way they work by improving their sense of self, first.

Trauma-informed practice

MAGIS developed THRiVE – Trauma-informed Healing and Resilience-building in Vulnerable Environments – with trauma in mind. Considering it in the broadest sense of the word, the activities over the 4-day intensive addressed both shared community and personal trauma, toxic stress, and the need for resilience. Through arts-based activities, the psychology of play, and individual and communal mindfulness practice, the group learned how to improve their professional work not only by being informed by the science behind the practice of the arts for psychosocial interventions in the classroom, but also by the experience of taking care of themselves first – the same way they take such thoughtful care of the students and colleagues they work with.

One participant described the experience as a realization of the blessings despite issues and everyday challenges. Through activities designed with self-awareness and mindfulness, there was also an element of healing. “I am able to say that I am healed and free from the heavy feelings I was carrying because of my own perception, thinking, and doing,” she said.

Mind the brain

The storytelling, self-awareness, and self-care practice doesn’t end with arts-based activities. From our year-old partnership with Mindworks self-awareness for us as their technology provides a detailed portrait of our brains: brain maps.  Mindworks uses EEG technology to depict brainwave activity, which can accurately show the current state of brain, and which neurotherapists analyze to inform customized programs for improving brain function and mental agility. The brain maps alone, along with interviews about them, provide a wealth of insight into the impact of personal history on how we think, our natural inclinations, and areas we can improve. This greatly helped participants of THRiVE to understand their strengths, their needs, and how they can better work together in their chosen professions.  Most importantly, knowing their needs helped them create their own plans for a self-care practice.

Creative souls

Bambi, one of the co-facilitators of THRiVE and Assistant Director for Community Relations, said the experience for her brought her to deeper appreciation of the arts as a vehicle of self-discovery and healing. Kathy, our Managing Director and a participant of the program, described it as life-changing.  Working behind the scenes, I was moved by the creative fluidity in the program’s facilitation: it was alive, responding to emergent needs of the participants.

Whichever side of experience, we all witnessed people heal, learn, and thrive through the arts. Visual art was a self-made, embodied mirror that someone may have been introduced to for the first time. “I didn’t even know I could do this,” one participant said in surprise. The a-ha moments were resounding by the end of the program. Movement and music gave life new rhythm, whether shared or individual.  Even the thoughtful selection of symbols was a creative experience in itself, giving new meaning to everyday objects around us.

We are deeply grateful for the vibrant participation of the inspiring educators of both The Learning Child School and Cartwheel Foundation, Inc.‘s partner Indigenous communities. We have learned as much, if not more, from each of you.

We also thank our friends at Cartwheel who co-facilitated this program with us.

Were you part of this program? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

To learn more about THRiVE, or to express interest in organizing it for a group, contact us.

Your Book of Life: considering imagination and the personal narrative

What’s your story?

You might feel the weight of such a casual yet dauntingly rhetorical question. Or maybe, in the age of social media, you’ve learned the shorthand: either something short and poetic, or a neat string of definitive one-worded sentences: Root fact. Current Fact. Aspiration/Raison d’être. Mostly, though, maybe the real feeling is: where do I start?

The first thing to realize: the reason why it may feel daunting is that it is important.

As we interact with the world, we experience change and our minds intuitively navigate it. Paolo Knill explains it as rituals of change:

Individuals’ or communities’ situations of change usually have ritual containers within which they are framed in space and time.

The idea of rituals of change nods to how human experience is interpreted as narrative: we sense life in chapters, milestones, eras. Sometimes this encompasses chronological sense, but narrative is beyond chronology when change is considered in a way that we look at how it impacts us as people. We are not just dots on a timeline going from A to B. We are people living lives. We have stories. We are stories.

Stories shaping our thoughts and our lives

In 1988, psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of a curious study about personal narratives. Bruner was interested in how people told stories and how language impacted their meaning and thought process. In a fascinating case of listening to the stories of a family, Bruner proposes a hypothesis that language does not only express, but can, out of habit – or ritual, to connect to Knill – begin to structure experience itself:

I believe that the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future.


In this light it feels sound to say that we need to be keepers of our story as if our lives depend on it – because it does. What we say about ourselves and our lives will eventually begin to shape us and our lives.  However, this is not only a matter of constantly taking note of and reflecting on what happens in our lives (though this is vital).

Stuck in suspension in front of a brick wall

To go through change means to move away from life as we know it: “entering devotional space for a period of time”. Thinking about change or transition as space is interesting in this way. To illustrate: perhaps you’ve felt suspended. Unmoving. Stuck. At a dead end. If you’re a writer, no matter how many pages you’ve rewritten, everything feels like the exaggerated combination of metaphors in the subheading of this portion of the blog.

Sometimes, we will walk into, run into change that we don’t have a ritual for, that we don’t have previous reference of. We’ll walk into a part of the story we have never read or seen, felt or told. Knill identifies times like this–or rather, spaces like this–often caused by disruption, loss, or conflict. The more grave the disruption to life as you know it, the more important it is to respond mindfully, lest our story begin to become a fuzzy picture, break down, or even be locked away and forgotten.

Drawing from imagination

When we are pushed to our limits and are unable to move forward to navigate through change, it can be described as a ‘lack of play range’ (Knill, 2005). Play in this context refers to an active process of interaction led by imagination, openness and even joy, with a sense of curiosity and discovery.  If you’re associating play with children right now, you’re on the right track.  The way we played as children – it helps to still know how to do it and to be in that disposition when we are older. Children navigate change intuitively and with this pure sense of openness, and this is essential in gaining fresh perspective to challenges as adults.

If we are in a situation challenges our sense of openness, the solution is to open us up. This is where expressive arts therapists begin their work: increasing the ‘play range’. Childlike but not childish, engaging in a sense of play as adults means to connect to our innate wellspring of imagination. Through imagination we create a nuanced narrative, an ‘alternative world experience’ (Knill, 2005) that helps inform us of our realities and our potential to move through it and even grow from it. It we listen to it, our lives will tell us what to do next.

Knill (2005) quotes Dutch writer Harry Mulisch (1999) to explain the connection between imagination and story:

… the storyteller is telling the story; he is also not the essential story teller. The story as such as the essential story teller. The story itself is telling the story; from the first sentence on, the story is a surprise for the story teller, and this is known to all story tellers.

Let’s not forget to be surprised, and remember just how much our life responds to us if we allow it. Look inward, read into you, and discover something new about your story.




Bruner, Jerome. “Research Currents: Life as Narrative”. Language Arts 65.6 (1988): 574–583. Web. Retrieved from

Knill, Paolo J., Ellen G. Levine, and Stephen K. Levine. Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2005. Print.

Mulisch, H. Die Prozedur. Munchen: Hanser, 1999. Print.


For more information on expressive arts therapy, or to express interest in taking an introductory course on the Expressive Arts, email us. We’d love to hear from you. 

Expression and healing as a universal language: notes from art therapy around the world

The call for the arts to encourage healing and resilience has brought our Director, Gina Alfonso, around the world to answer it. Although she holds clinic in Washington D.C., she has been across Asia and Africa, and is currently in South America. She works with both teachers and children, often from groups that are marginalized or have gone through trauma.

photo-21Classroom as a healing space

With background in education for grassroots communities in the Philippines, Gina’s practice in therapy unpacks the healing potential of the classroom. A productivity-centered place such as a classroom is where children and teachers have the opportunity to be in a context that need not reflect their current challenging situations. Training teachers in the arts with purpose to respond to this kind of context, trains them to be companions rather than just teachers.

The positive art experience is key to equipping teachers in becoming companions that are process-centered, as opposed to instructors that are performance-centered. With the help of imagination, creative expression can turn learning spaces into healing spaces, too – with the arts as a language that bridges different backgrounds, cultures, and personal stories.

Companionship in process

The role of the art therapist is to be perceptive towards diverse and nuanced expressions. Throughout her experience in different cultures, Gina has realized that language and culture barriers are transcended by the impact of full engagement in process and expression. She calls this the ahamoment – and it’s what she looks out for in every workshop and session she holds.

The aha moment is personal, and almost completely out of the hands of a facilitator. This is what makes it impactful to the one experiencing it.

The arrival at a moment of self-discovery is something an art therapist can help prepare the path to, but she is never there at the end, preceding the individual’s arrival. For the therapist, there is no space for judgement in this arrival; there is only the delicate work of observation, acceptance, and being led to work with exactly where an individual is at.

Expression : Expansion

In an expressive arts workshop in China, Gina had a participant who was a professor. Fixated on the theory behind the process, she found herself skeptical at the end of the workshop. It was only after six months, in a follow-up workshop, that she arrived at her aha moment.

“Now I get it. Now I understand how the arts can be so valuable for healing. Something clicked inside me,” she had said. “I have never felt this free in my life, and really appreciate how this movement taught me something new about myself. Now I feel like I’m ready to be a better trainer.”

Sometimes, all it takes to be more proficient at the work we do, or to be better people in our community, or to be better for ourselves — is to understand ourselves more deeply. It’s not an easy journey to get to the aha moment. We have to leave our comfort zones, be brutally honest with ourselves, be more fiercely compassionate to ourselves, and walk alongside uncertainty. The expressive arts and the process of creativity doesn’t promise to solve problems, though it may well do so in some cases. But it does promise to teach you something about yourself — to expand your vision and discover your inner strength on your own terms, through expression that can only come forth from you. And the great news is that creative expression is inherent in every one of us: a personal journey, but a universal experience.

Photos: from Gina’s workshops with a community situated near the Thai-Burma border. Taken by Mitos Urgel of WEAVE Women’s Network, Mae Hong Son, Thailand