Opinion: Art therapy gives patients a voice when there are no words

10 October 2018

When I started my foundation in art I was already quite ill, and I don’t know what kind of illness to call it but I was very depressed-stroke-anxious. I go to my foundation at art college and everyone was really expressive and doing their ‘passionate art’ but I seemed to have switched off that button completely. I became interested in community art — focusing away from my own work.

Then I went on to university, where I studied art, design, and community projects. In January of that year, I had a drug-induced psychotic episode, which meant I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was there that I experienced an art therapy room for the first time.

Out in the grounds of this sterile psychiatric ward was a hut full of art material, and little objects, and obviously you’re very heavily sedated so you can barely see, but so many things spoke to me, it was just a very different environment. I just felt so comfortable. One thing really stands out: I must have been given some crayons and I drew on this piece of paper like some shapes and I wrote underneath , “this is my space”. I put it on my wall and I remember really feeling like that drawing was utterly significant of my saying: I finally have a space. That’s when I realised: I have a plan, I’m going to become an art therapist.

It was the same time that that Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book, came out. I thought — I know about madness so well, and I’m going to help people. I was going to go back to university, do my three years, then study to be an art therapist. This is not about falling apart and becoming nothing I decided. This is about rising up. Art therapy became the thing that I was about.

After finishing uni the following academic year, my mental health was so much better and I made loads of friends and felt okay again. After university, you had to do a year when you worked with people in some kind of care capacity before you started art therapy training.

I did my training in Sheffield, and went on to work at a number of places. I worked with everyone from people with learning disabilities and communication problems to those with head injuries and on a high-secure psychiatric unit. With art therapy you begin to see the subtlety in everything, and you learn to look for non verbal communication. Art therapy gives you tools to explore emotions and a level of distress that is so overwhelming and difficult to speak about in a classic talking therapy way.


Courtesy British Association of Art Therapists

I’ve been in settings where there’s an art therapy room, and then those where you’re in a room with a patient and there’s just a chair and table with guards, in a high security psychiatric setting. I feel as if it’s the training of the art therapist that creates a space, an unspoken understanding that you’re going to let the service user be exactly what they are — you’re not on an investigation trip, you’re not going to ask questions unless that is right for the situation — you’re giving people time.

I’d say my only achievement as an art therapist would be to let people express whatever they want to express. In art therapy you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to, but you are free to express through the art, at your own pace. I think the art materials can be comforting, so it’s not just two people in a space. You can help people begin, to get started, but it’s not prescriptive. It’s not ‘let’s draw a flower and I’ll help you make it look like a flower’.

Collage was a useful tool, as it is a means of taking away some of the fear around the really personal aspect of drawing. I would cut out different images and they could choose the ones that related to them. There’s something about objects in art therapy rooms, too; there is something so powerful in the symbols. It’s a way of reading a situation without words. Somehow because of the environment you’re in, the boundaried space, it’s their time. There’s something about that space. Everyone has a story, some kind of thing they need to share and somehow that art therapy environment allows for that. When the people make something, it’s theirs.

Words can be malleable, and changed and thrown back at patients — sometimes. There’s something so primal about creating work, and maybe sometimes we’d both make art. At times, though, you could feel like sometimes someone needed that space for you to watch them make something. It’s a great medium for working with people who may not have the words to express what is going on for them.

Now it is a popular choice for working with children, people with learning disabilities and people who have suffered a head injury. I have worked with people who due to a head injury are unable to speak in such a way that others can understand them and yet the feeling of what they are saying is there. The art making provides another window into what they are experiencing.

Always in any kind of therapy I think we are looking for a an act of communication, the smallest act of connection. There is a wonderful book by Martina Thomson, an art therapist, called On Art and Therapy: An Exploration and she talks about art therapy being like ‘feeding birds’ you want to be very quiet and allow the client to feel able to come towards you in some way. It is a delicate thing. You are not firing questions and needing answers. You are being together. Therapy is often seen as something for psychologically-minded people, or those of a certain class. For those with complex trauma for example, there might not be words to express the depth of what they have been through. Art can give them a voice.


Courtesy British Association of Art Therapists

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Millie Gaum

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