Therapy Rooted in the Arts
We are all spending more time at home and more time with members of our household, resulting in a vital need to decompress, to find meaningful connections, and to unearth curiosity in our everyday lives. If you feel like you have run out of ideas or are simply unable to consider anything besides getting through the next 24 hours, we invite you to turn to the arts.
Specifically, we invite you to look at the creative arts therapies and how the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic (O-School) and the Brooke Whitted Center (BWC) utilize the innate healing power of the arts to open avenues of communication and expression while tending to the necessary social-emotional skills building that allows our students to thrive. There are many disciplines that make up the creative arts therapies. We will explore the three branches we have expertise in — art therapy, dance/movement therapy, and expressive arts therapy. We will also provide ideas for bringing the power of the arts into your own home.
Like a generous and ancient tree, the branches of creative arts therapy are diverse in the tools they use while all being rooted in the soil of curiosity, improvisation, listening, trust, and the imagination. Often the initiating source — a question, pain, or joy — is made external, invited out into the light through one particular modality where it can be safely explored and mined for meaningful growth.
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy, one branch of the creative arts therapies, as an integrative mental health tool that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Within residential treatment settings, art therapy successfully supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art therapy is used to promote insight into patterns of behavior which negatively impact progress. A young person may experience paint as the best language to illustrate the range of emotion that colors their decision making. By choosing colors and images, the young person and art therapist can reflect on what they see as they seek necessary change.
Additionally, art therapy can be used to improve cognitive functioning, strengthen interpersonal skills, increase positive self-esteem, develop communication skills, reduce and resolve issues of conflict, grow emotional resilience, and cultivate an identity. In the act of filling a blank canvas with pencil, marker, paint, or pastel, one can see how a young person has the opportunity to work on those developmentally important needs. By creating art on a blank canvas, a student must work through fears of failure, learn to work with mistakes, and begin to establish how they see their present and future.
Jackson Pollock once said, “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” The use of art therapy in a residential setting can encourage self-exploration in a nonthreatening way. Art making can be used not only as an effective coping tool for anxiety reduction but also as a metaphor for how we, as humans, approach everyday life and challenging situations. Art making can create a sense of self-reflection by allowing individuals to look at these situations and then place their experiences onto the medium used. Students will pick colors, shapes, images, and then assess their efforts. There will be moments of ease, joy, certainty, as well as struggle and insecurity. The process of art making can expose the strengths and challenges of a young person’s internal landscape. When a person is not obstructed by words, they may find new meaning in familiar places.
As we climb the creative arts therapy tree, we find another branch, dance/movement therapy, extending outwards with its own set of embodied tools. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance/movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual. According to the ADTA, dance/movement therapy focuses on movement behavior as it emerges in the therapeutic relationship. This focus can translate smoothly into residential treatment settings, like the O-School and the BWC, that utilize milieu and relational therapy. Dance/movement therapy builds upon the community and relationships to foster trust and cohesion as well as encourage self-exploration and increased self-awareness. Within a therapeutic community like ours, where a sense of belonging and safety are cultivated, students can utilize movement and dance to explore their internal and external experience. Students can express, create, communicate, and connect with their physical selves through movement. They can also use movement to explore their relationship to the environment and peers who share the space. The ability to use themselves and the space around them to explore relationships offers a holistic process of discovery and expression that is tailored to the specific needs of each individual student. Dance/movement techniques are used individually and in groups for safe expression that has the power to remain with students throughout the week.
While conversation and verbal expression may be a comfortable place to start for some, others may not yet have the language or desire to verbalize their experience. Building upon — and in collaboration with — verbal expression, as well as other creative arts therapies, dance/movement therapy can be utilized as a tool to broaden the possibility and willingness of a student to engage — as well as shift how they engage. As Martha Graham once said, “The body does not lie.” Emotions, anxiety, and trauma experiences manifest in the body through patterns of movement and body language. Dance/movement therapy provides students the opportunity to identify and develop their inner resources to build resiliency, confidence, and self-regulation.
The third branch we will climb is expressive arts therapy. The expressive arts combine the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing, and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development. By integrating the arts processes and allowing one to flow into another, students gain access to their inner resources for healing, clarity, and growth. The expressive arts require providers to look and listen for the modalities that will amplify the voice of the young person. The art of conversation and verbal expression may be the starting point. From there, awareness can move to body language, sensory experience, and the imaginal realms — all of which require the young person to flex an important muscle, the brain, between thinking, feeling, sensing, and imagining. The movement from one modality to another can be concrete. A student may open by talking, then be engaged in drawing, and finally writing, creating an opportunity for integration of the self as the student and therapist make connections between previously disparate thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Connection within one’s self with a supportive presence can help a young person to feel comforted while simultaneously developing their capacity for self-direction.
Students and young adults are currently living in a time of global turbulence. This environment may reinforce their personal fears and insecurities around an uncertain future. Many young people are struggling with identity formation, lack of confidence, a heightened sense of self-criticism, and a fear of failure. The act of making—art, poetry, dance, connection, crafts — creates a space within which those struggles can be addressed safely, and feelings of mastery can emerge. No matter what modality is chosen or which branch of creative arts therapies you reach for, the offer to create something together lays a foundation to create a temenos, a sacred space where contents can be safely brought into the light of consciousness. In the process of making something with someone else, opportunities emerge and are moved through. When offered a piece of paper and colored pencils, a young person may pause. ‘What am I supposed to do? What if it sucks? I am NOT an artist.’ The prompt to pick a color and start to doodle may be all they need to work through the self-doubt present in their comment. In the familiar case that a simple prompt is not enough, there would be a conversation about how to reframe this initial stress-inducing offer and respond differently. Is this young person fixated on perfection or doing things “right”? Maybe the list of failures they have experienced looms too large for them to see their own capacity to succeed. The materials and the activity provide an active way to engage with these otherwise abstract topics.
Especially when provided with a step-by-step structure, like a craft project, the creative arts provide the way forward. The student is not left to fend for themselves. Instead, they are asked to follow specific steps despite their own fears and insecurities. In the end, they will have a product that was created by their hand and their capacity to tolerate uncertainty and fear.
At the O-School and the BWC art therapy, dance/movement therapy, and expressive arts therapy are used relationally as students learn to self-reflect and gain insights into their role in the community. We turn to the arts as a tool for self-reflection as well as connection with others, two things that are of particular importance during this extraordinary time.
A note to parents and caregivers wrestling with how to meet the needs of their students who are currently at home: Doodling is a great, low-stakes activity to bring into your home. All you need is a pencil and paper. This can provide a much-needed break from your remote workday or an opportunity to tune in to your own creativity. This can also be an invitation to engage in parallel activity with your children. Maybe you compare doodles, laugh if they are silly, or share what was on your mind that prompted your drawings. Take a family doodle break to practice getting out of your head and trying something new.
Author’s Rachel Harrison, MAAT, LCPC, serves as Program Manager, and Kelly Baas, LCPC, as a Therapist for the BWC and Ifetayo Kitwana, M.A., LCPC, R-DMT is a Day School Case Manager and Therapist at the O-School. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page here or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.