Art as psychotherapy
Posted Tuesday 27 September 2011
I would be lying if I said I was enthusiastic about art therapy in the first instance. The assessment came after my fourth referral to the mental health services. Aged twenty-one, I had seen a string of therapists and psychiatrists and had unsuccessfully attempted to manage my diagnoses of anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder without intervention.
I saw my referral to art therapy as a ‘soft option’ – I thought they were offering it to me because I was a difficult case and that after several referrals back to the community mental health team (CMHT) they didn’t know what to do with me.
Having said this, I knew that I needed to at least try; I have had enough experience of therapy to know that if you don’t make the effort to engage with it then there is little point in going.
I tried to go into my first session with an open mind. I found the assessment quite odd. In most assessments for therapy you end up explaining your life history, in this one there was very little discussion; instead I had to draw a story while the therapist gave me loose guidelines ‘draw your main character’, ‘draw their job’ etc. I was frustrated after the assessment. I just wanted to talk to someone. I didn’t want to draw pictures.
I had enjoyed art at school and had found it to be quite therapeutic. I expected to click with art therapy straight away, but it did not work that way for me. For the first few weeks, there was very little talk. I would begin to say how I was feeling but felt that the therapist cut me off and wanted me to get on with some art work, which made me feel like my problems were not worth listening to.
I enjoyed making pictures but did not feel that it was of any real benefit to my mental health. The turning point came when I managed to explain my frustrations to my therapist. I told her that I wanted to talk more, either before or during the art making, and that I wanted her to sit with me, rather than moving to the other side of the room to give me space. She took all of this on board and as she started to get to know me better adapted her method to suit me.
From there, I began to look forward to my sessions and started to trust my therapist more. As the weeks went by I started to feel safer and more able to talk about very difficult things. My therapist started to sit next to me as I made pictures and didn’t push me to start art making if I was happier talking instead. The new understanding between us really helped me start to appreciate and engage with the therapy.
The art psychotherapy room is now a very safe place for me; it reminds me of a small art classroom and I like that you can use any materials you choose: things are not locked away like they are at school.
There are, for me, two key differences between art therapy and an art class. First, you don’t have to have any artistic skill as the point is not to make a pretty picture, but to express emotion, and second, you are not told what to make or which materials to use.
My therapist will ask me if I want to make a picture and then let me choose whichever materials I want, to make any image I can think of. As the therapy has gone on I have got better at ‘drawing how I feel’, which initially seemed quite impossible.
My therapist works in quite a traditional, psychodynamic way; she is often focused on my childhood and the dynamics of my family, which can sometimes feel like she is looking for something that isn’t there, especially when she is analysing my pictures. However I’m sure that many others will agree that this is by no means exclusive to art therapists!
Art therapy would not suit everyone: if you don’t like making pictures then it probably isn’t for you. I wasn’t sure whether it would suit me and at the start was convinced that it didn’t, but like any other therapy the key to getting it right is communication.
Once I had told my therapist what I did and didn’t like, she was able to adapt the therapy to suit me. I now understand that is not a ‘soft’ therapy, but simply a way of adding an extra medium for people who can struggle to explain their feelings.
One of the dissatisfactions I continue to have with art therapy is that it is not helping me to get better in the sense that I still think and act in an unhealthy way.
I am, though, starting to understand why I think and feel certain things, which I hope will eventually bring me to a place where I no longer need to harm myself. For now, the main benefit I get from art therapy is a sense of calm, a chance to look deeper into my feelings and a way of discussing and expressing the difficulties I have in a safe environment.
Commenting is now closed.