Studying Psychology as an undergraduate and a graduate student I was introduced to numerous forms of psychological and physical healing techniques to improve a person’s emotional state. My first opportunity to apply Art Therapy (AT) was around 1987 with a group of chronically mentally ill Geriatric Clients.

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ~ Pablo Picasso

Art Therapy Pin

It was a Socialization Skills Group; the group did not interact with one another, in reality, the group sat not answering or participating in the initial leader’s questions or suggestions. It was my job to change this, well fresh out of graduate school I decided to begin bringing paints and covering the table with large paper. The “weathered staff” told me that this is how the geriatric group has always been.  I did not believe the status quo was acceptable … I introduced Art Therapy.

The only directions I gave were for the clients to pick colors they would like to see on a tablecloth and told them they were making a tablecloth for themselves.  Initially, I had to do hand-over-hand (meaning I hold their hand with the brush and assist them with the strokes) with some of the clients. The process was very slow.  Over a three-week period of 45 min two days a week, the clients began exchanging colors and choosing different places to paint on the paper that was spread over the length of the table.

I was so excited as I had been told “these clients do not interact,” not only were they interacting with quiet words and movements but I also saw them showing positive emotions!  The “tablecloth” took about seven weeks to complete. There were three ladies and five men proud of “Their Table Cloth” which they chose to have hung on the wall.

This opened the door for additional expressive groups for the geriatric clients at the center.  To be able to see semi-catatonic people start to engage in activities… as far as I was concerned there was nothing better!

Using the Art Therapy skills, I was taught in school and seminars was worth its weight in gold. I found this out while working with adults and children of Victims of Violent Crimes. These are people who had experienced horrendous trauma and were working through the physical and emotional effects.

Being able to use colors, put textiles together, the act of modeling clay as they saw fit, rip and crinkle tissue paper, paper, and shape pipe cleaners all this and more enabled adults and children to express their emotions. The expression of emotions, that at times words could not convey, was now allowed out.  This was a powerful medium allowing them a form of communication to get out and then work through their greatest terror.  Using AT along with other modalities of therapy, I had the honor to walk next to them as they endeavored each victorious step of their journey.

Around this time in my career, a colleague was an Art Therapist. We shared our respective areas of expertise with one another; broadening both our knowledge and skills, in our respective areas of practice.

Using AT at the End of Life for the person dying, as well as in the therapy of the family members and/or loved ones of the terminally ill is a powerful tool for anyone.  I personally would recommend a Certified AT if at all possible.  Although a person who has had training in the skills and is capable of doing AT within their treatment definitely is able to make an impact.  Seeing the joy of a patient with dementia painting or using their hands to design or mold an object is amazing.

Patients sharing occasional memories of what they had made or created or an interaction from a different time is invaluable. Especially if a family member is present to interact with the person to share in the recalled memory.  The recognition the patient has of the family member is a gift for that individual you will never forget!

The opportunity to observe the joining together of a family who thinks they cannot carry on after the death of a parent, child, or sibling.   It is priceless to be the therapist and having worked with the family and seen their pain, utilized multi-modalities in their treatment to see the culmination of all their hard work while they are engaged in an AT project.

The family was making a unity banner on felt material putting memories using small items, pictures, sayings, textiles, etc. of past times and sharing how they would like to make new memories.  They showed through this project the joining together, as a family who now has developed some hope for the future. The joy of being a unit before the loss of a sibling/child, then the experience of despair and loneliness, the pain after the death, and unbridled anger leading to reaching out to one another and learning to celebrate one another again, to accept the possibility of joy in the future, showing hope.

Reading this Blog you can see that my inclusion of AT is used in many situations. A person does not have to be artistic to engage in Art Therapy. The process of a person’s completed creation is how you assist them in tying together the experiences and processes they have been working through.  I do not have a specific list of when I would use AT, I implement a therapeutic technique when and if it is appropriate for the client.

Why Art Therapy?  At times art communicates what words can not.

Research has shown Art Therapy (AT) to be beneficial in treating both physical and emotional health problems. Some of these are listed below:

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Autism Spectrum
  • Grief
  • Communication
  • Concentration
  • Cancer
  • Reduce pain symptoms
  • Reduce stress and anxiety in children with asthma
  • Stimulates mental functioning in geriatrics, especially with dementia
  • Decreases depression in Parkinson’s patients

~ Jennifer E. Matilla, M.S., LMHC-QS, LPC

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