Drawing Out Distress With Art Therapy
by Catherine Morris | September 14, 2020, updated 4 months ago
When Estelle Barron was diagnosed with both Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus as a teenager, it was a devastating blow for the aspiring dancer. Anxious, depressed, and uncertain she turned to something that had always brought her joy—art.
“I found the art process mirrored how I was feeling, gave my pain a voice, and nurtured me to a better place. I felt like I regained some control over what was going on in my body. There is something special and safe about working through the darkness, the emotional numbness and tapping into the deeper self using art. The whole experience was debilitating but I found beauty in the pain.”
Inspired by her own health journey and drawn to psychology, Barron became a qualified art therapist and now runs a busy practice in the Vancouver area. She is passionate about helping people, and supports people who are experiencing grief, stress, chronic illness, trauma, anxiety, and abuse—
“Art is a voice and when you are finding it hard to communicate muddled or uncomfortable feelings, making art and having it in front of you can be the spark you need to find the words you’ve been searching for. Working with clients is the best feeling and every single day is a blessing and a gift.”
What is Art Therapy?
All art is a form of expression and comes from a deeply personal place. In art therapy, patients use artistic materials to communicate difficult feelings, guided by a trained therapist.
“Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that involves the creative process,” explains Amanda Gee, President of the Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA). “People can use whatever they're interested in, whether that's watercolours, acrylics, pastels or just a pencil and a piece of paper.
“People use art to explore their inner world. Art therapy can be really cathartic, even if it’s just putting colours on a piece of paper. It helps people figure out what they're feeling and can be a really good mindfulness practice.”
Like most forms of counselling, art therapy is patient-led. The client chooses their materials and the therapist takes their cues from the work they produce. Therapists are not there to teach art.
Barron says the key element is not the art, but what it conveys—
“The art process can be just as important and maybe even more important than the final product[...] Art therapy is more about the process and emotional expression. The art will not be judged, interpreted, or graded.”
Who Should See an Art Therapist?
Art therapy is suitable for anyone. It’s often used to treat mental illness, and to help people understand their emotional landscape, but it can also help physical disorders such as poor motor skills, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination.
The therapy's emphasis on non-verbal communication is particularly effective in treating trauma, and it’s been shown to help survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. In the United States, art therapy is gaining ground as part of the treatment toolkit for traumatized veterans. It's shown particular promise in group settings, to treat military members suffering from PTSD.
“A lot of trauma is processed more in images than words,” says Gee.
Young children can also benefit as they struggle to articulate past experiences, “Often issues with kids are actually pre-words. They do not have the language for early trauma,” mentions Gee.
In addition to her practice, Barron works at a seniors' home where she helps residents with cognitive impairment, loneliness, depression, chronic illness and other issues.
She's also led sessions in schools and community centres and says—
“Art therapy is for all ages, genders, and races. It is great for children because many already communicate with their drawings [but] life is messy for adults too. Art therapy is a great tool and opportunity to help mentally organize, or prepare and problem-solve when a life challenge hits.”
Gee recalls working with a traumatized patient who had a lot of anger. He was unable to express it, and showing him how he could do so through art proved to be the turning point in his treatment, “He just drew and drew, and drew. It was a huge moment. Later, he told us that we'd saved his life.”
What Should You Look for in an Art Therapist?
“As the client you should shop around and be picky,” says Barron. Many counsellors offer a free consultation where they can tell you about their approach, and you can ask questions.
In Canada, an undergraduate degree in fine arts, psychology, social work or counselling is required before entering an art therapy program. While therapists don't have to be artists themselves, most do come from creative backgrounds, and every art therapist should be familiar with the materials used in session.
Concerns, Fears, Perfectionism
Beginners often feel intimidated at the thought of wielding a paintbrush. The right therapist can put them at ease and guide them into the process slowly.
Gee, who has a bachelor of arts in sculpting and drawing, says therapists are there to facilitate the patient's art, not show off their own skills, and adds, "Therapists look at the emotions being expressed, facial expressions, body language, whether people are drawn to a particular material, colours or lines. They also look for changes in a person's behaviour during the process or changes in their art[…]"
“When I see someone struggling with perfection, a good exercise for them is to create the ugliest version of whatever image they want to create. Many people’s last experience with art may have been pre-teen years when they were told by their teacher that they were not good enough. These negative experiences can stunt creativity, exploration, and growth.”
Online Art Therapy
With the Covid-19 outbreak forcing people indoors, many art therapists have migrated online. With anxiety, loneliness and other mental health disorders skyrocketing, demand for their services has never been greater.
Gee says art therapists have risen to the challenge and virtual sessions can offer much-needed relief, “Therapy online is different but it is definitely effective. People still get that connection, which is important because everyone has been so isolated.”
Barron, who offers virtual sessions through her practice, is also optimistic that art therapy can continue to play a role in healing as the pandemic persists and eventually wanes. She says—
“We have all experienced a collective trauma, and as we resume activity a new way of being is also provoking a lot of uneasy or uncomfortable feelings. We may not have the answers to this trauma but by putting those feelings onto paper, textile, or clay, there may be a better way of understanding or seeing this experience objectively.
“There are many examples of people online who got in touch with their creative side and tried things like art, music, dance, cooking or gardening as a way to feel connected.”
If you’re interested in art therapy, contact one of our Whichdoctor practitioners to learn more and book a session. Our network is also home to other forms of creative counselling such as dance therapy, sound healing and play therapy.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.