Healing with art

Art therapy allows you to get in touch with your innermost emotions while acting as a therapeutic guide, writes Papiya Bhattacharya
Last Updated 20 May 2019, 19:30 IST

There is something unexplainable about art. When I pick up my pencil and sketch or paint, a sense of peace envelops me. Perhaps, art has the power to bestow that peace upon troubled individuals, too. Belinda Rego is an expressive art therapist with Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies (SMART) in Bengaluru and says that she does not like to categorise people as ‘normal’ or ‘those who need therapy’. Belinda feels, “Anyone can benefit with art therapy as this puts them in touch with their inner selves and they can grow.” She uses clay, drama, drawing and painting, collage making, etc to draw her patients out and help them.

Hidden power

Seema thinks she is normal because she responds in socially accepted ways to situations. She was in a short relationship until her partner broke up with her. She was devastated and felt life was not worth living. After four to five years of heartbreak, she feels she has dealt with the situation in her own way through meditation and self-control; yet is sometimes surprised about how easily her mind can take a plunge into despair, and she is back to feeling as before.

Belinda says about Seema, “If she had come into art therapy, she could have come face to face with herself in ways that would have helped her to hold herself even though the pain remained. Trauma is a part of life and creates ways of coping which can be maladaptive. Art therapy allows you to touch your innermost emotions and looks at them with compassion. Your feelings do not spring a sudden surprise on you.”

Ritu had a troubled relationship and decided to go in for therapy. Her therapist asked her to draw her relationship on paper with colour pastels. Ritu painted a patch of pink and drew some circular shapes on it. Then she covered the pink with green. When she spoke to her therapist, it emerged that the pink colour was her and green was her partner who was not allowing her to be seen or heard. Belinda says, “Once Ritu understood that she was being totally covered, she had to think of assertive ways to make herself heard. That helped her.”

Girija Kaimal, an assistant professor in the Creative Therapies Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says “Art therapy is the use of visual expression with verbal psychotherapy to help individuals better understand and address their condition, and develop strategies to cope with specific challenges in their life. It is a form of psychotherapy facilitated by a trained clinician (typically a clinician with a masters degree in art therapy). Art therapy is different from art making which is a form of self-care.”

She adds, “Art therapy, as a profession, is fairly new to India. There are only a few art therapists trained in the western model. There are several individuals in India though, who have come to use art in therapeutic ways. This is different from art therapy which has the expectation of clinical training.”

For kids too

Girija had a series of art therapy sessions with a 13-year-old boy who was in the foster care system in America. He had been expelled from regular public schools for behavioural problems following inappropriate sexual conduct towards younger children. What she discovered through sessions with him was that his drawings were like those of a much younger child. This indicated to her that many of his behaviours were masking learning disabilities which had probably not been diagnosed because so much of the school’s focus was on his disruptive behaviours. It was also clear from some of his records that he himself had been sexually abused as a child and some of his predatory behaviour resulted from these unfortunate experiences of his own.

Through individual art therapy sessions, she found him to be increasingly open and comfortable with sharing his daily activities in the school and teachers reported that his behaviour was less disruptive. Seeing his drawings also helped teachers and school staff see him as a human being and a unique individual, rather than as just a problem child.

Nithya Poornima is an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences. She uses a combination of multiple methods to open channels of expression that connect to the subjective experience of the person through talk therapy, journal writing, writing poetry, art, etc. She uses art therapy as a tool to gauge the internal states of her patients who are in the ages of 4-18, and may not be able to talk openly about their selves. She speaks to teenagers who are in emotional turmoil and while they sit with her, she gives them pen and paper and asks them to doodle while they are around. She says, “What begins as squiggles and a jumble of lines may eventually form a pattern in those doodles as the children begin to face their inner feelings.’’

Girija conducted a study of cortisol levels in three individuals in art therapy and their cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) levels were lowered after 45 minutes of art making, thus showing that art therapy helps to reduce stress.

Art therapy, as a profession, is fairly new to India. There are only a few art therapists trained in the western model.
Art therapy, as a profession, is fairly new to India. There are only a few art therapists trained in the western model.

Studies suggest...

Sohini Chakraborty is founder director of Kolkata Sanved where they work with survivors of violence, exploitation and trafficking. She relates a study by Sanved which examined the impact of dance movement therapy (DMT) on trauma-related symptoms in a sample of 69 child survivors of sex trafficking and sexual violence living in child care institutions. The participants, aged 15-16 years, were randomly assigned to a dance movement therapy treatment group and a waitlist control group. The intervention module focused on self-image, anger management and communication. Data was collected from government and NGO run child-care institutions in Maharashtra and West Bengal.

Following a pre-test, mid-test and post-test design, trauma symptom checklist for children (TSCC) was used to measure the impact of DMT on psychological parameters. The entire process lasted six months. Results showed significant improvement in levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and dissociation in the group receiving DMT as compared to those not receiving it at mid- and post-test phases. Sexual concerns among survivors attending DMT became clinically non-significant by post-test as well. Sohini says, “The study found that DMT can lead to the positive development of personality and can teach necessary life skills needed by children as they leave the care institutions after turning 18.”

Juliet King is an associate professor in the art therapy department at George Washington University in Virginia and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine. She says, “I have seen art therapy help many people in my two decades as a clinician. The profession is working towards establishing more scientific proof to support the many benefits we observe in practice. My research interest for the last 15 years has been to work towards a systematic integration of neuroscience into art therapy theory, research and practice.” She has written a book called Art Therapy, Trauma and Neuroscience based on the subject.

In a scientific paper, Dr King explains how creative art therapy such as dance movement therapy intervention can improve the physical symptoms of an illness. Through the use of the visual system, it is possible to address challenges such as phantom limb pain and paralysis. Stroke victims who have paralysis on one side might sit in front of a mirror and use the arm without paralysis in front of the mirror. The brain is ‘tricked’ into thinking that it sees the other limb, which opens up the brain pathways so the person can use the arm with former paralysis.

Sangeeta Prasad is an art therapist and has her own private practice in the form of Circle Art Studio in Fairfax, Virginia. She cites case studies where children and adults benefit immensely from art therapy. She spoke about two sisters aged 12 and 9 who had lost their father. The younger one began having nightmares while the older one became increasingly withdrawn. When asked, they would say nothing was wrong.

During art making, Sangeeta says, “The younger one began drawing carefully and then messed it up saying it felt good to make a mess. The older one drew scenes where a person was lost. Slowly, both children began to talk about their loss outside class and began to draw and paint at home. They felt safer and the nightmares stopped while the older one began talking.”

So what if a life crisis hits them again? Do they go in for therapy all over again? Sangeeta feels, “It all depends upon the therapist and the individual and their coping skills. Whether they will be able to cope with another life crisis, I cannot tell.” Art therapy can be a standalone treatment when practised by a trained clinician,
insists Girija.

(Published 20 May 2019, 19:30 IST)

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