Blue clues found in art therapy (September 4, 2016)

“Breaking Blue – Impressions on Depression from the Art Therapy Room,” an interactive exhibition at the Medulla Gallery, presented a collection of the art produced by art therapy patients and their therapists. The exhibition was curated by the Art Therapy Association of T&T, Sian McLean, Sarah Soo Hon, Kristy Anatol, Satori Hassanali and Kim Bryan, who participated in an artist’s talk on July 21.

Anatol explained that art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which the creation of art is used as a form of communication to help a client get through a challenge in their life. “It can only be called art therapy if it is happening in the presence of a qualified art psychotherapist. The most important thing about art therapy is that there is a relationship between the art therapist, the client and the art, it’s three or nothing.” She also made the distinction between art psychotherapy and the use of art as therapy, through the use of colouring books, drawing or other means.
Hassanali said art therapy can be used for any age and in different settings, while Soo Hon said the individual benefits of art therapy vary from person to person based on age, ability and mental health, etc. “The benchmark has a lot to do with how much the person gets out of the process of making art. This can vary from enjoying the process to a deeper emotional connection with how art has helped them uncover things about themselves.” McLean said the techniques used depend on the client and the goals of therapy.
The requirements to be a qualified art therapist are very strict, according to Anatol. In addition to having a Master’s Degree, therapists have to work thousands of supervised hours to become licensed. There is currently no regulatory body in T&T to license art therapists, so they are trained in the US and the UK.
The five therapists formed the Association to create a personal and professional identity as a group. Another reason was for professional and personal support in a local setting, as art therapy is a fairly new profession in T&T. They are also exploring how the training they received abroad can be made culturally relevant.
One main goal of the Association is to connect with the public to raise public awareness and create opportunities for ongoing discussion about art therapy. Soo Hon said a conscious decision was made to share the art outside of the therapeutic space, for public education. She said there were a lot of ethical considerations involved in choosing the art, including confidentiality. She said the works were important to the clients, “it’s them baring their hearts and it’s really brave of them to have agreed and been willing to share with the public.”
One of McLean’s clients, Kathy (not her real name) shared what art therapy had done for her. She began therapy depressed, suicidal and psychotic, and underwent two years of art therapy, as well as other treatments. Her hospitalization because she was at high risk for committing suicide was her turning point. “With art therapy, I can express much more though art than through words. I continue to do it at home to deal with my depression and anxiety. I feel like a different person and I realize that I can’t always be so hard on myself. Asking for help does not mean you’re a failure, it makes you strong, because you realize you can’t do it on your own. Adjusting to life means you have to be honest with yourself and the people around you about how you’re feeling and what you need.”
The therapists’ art pieces were created in response to the clients work or as a part of their self-care routine. All the therapists agreed that self-care was important, as they hear a lot of horror stories, and creating art helps them to process these. They said the most important thing was not to take home the emotions of the day, so finding ways to detach, like art, reading and exercise, were important in order to start fresh the next day. Soo Hon also said that peer support could also be a form of self-care.
The therapists work in both the private and public sectors. Soo Hon works with adolescent males, who are referred to her mainly through the court system by magistrates. She said the more people become aware that the service is available, the more referrals she receives. “Building trust is always the most difficult process working with that population because they’re coming from really troubled pasts, but the dynamics and the opportunity to provide some nurturing relationships, which they may not have had before, is very beneficial to them.”
Anatol, who works in primary schools where she sees a lot of graffiti and violent drawings, said there is a need to look at what is happening at home for children to be producing these drawings. Soo Hon agreed and said a lot of the imagery seen is schools is a reflection of our culture. “So instead of saying don’t draw that, we need to open a discussion rather than forbidding it, to find out why they’re drawing that, there may be a real reason.”
Hassanali said another aim of the Association is to get creative art therapies into schools. He said this is part of a wider thrust to promote mental health awareness throughout T&T and reduce the stigma around the topic. “A lot of the change we need to see should begin with discourse and feeling safe enough with being able to bring difficult topics and issues to a conversation. We have a greater potential to bring about change with art therapy as we are a creative and artistic people and it is easier to create rather than talk.”

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