This is a transcript of an interveiw with a mental health professional in art therapy, Vrinda Narayanan.
What is art therapy?
It is basically a way to creatively express using art. It can help in the process on healing, whether it is emotion healing or mental healing and it’s very good for your mental wellbeing. It is extremely therapeutic. Although now it has become very popular, it initially wasn’t as popular. It started off in 1940s. Over the last couple of years, it has picked up pace because I think people have begun to understand how healing it can be and a lot of doctors use it as a part of psychotherapy. There are a lot of treatment techniques that are used along with art therapy.
How is art therapy different from normal art?
You don’t have to be an artist if you want to dabble in art therapy or if you want go to a certified art therapist and experience it. A lot of people feel that they’re not a good artist but that is not even a criteria. People of all age groups can experience art therapy and use it to heal themselves.
When you are experiencing art therapy you use a lot of colors and there are a lot of assessment techniques, and it is actually quite elaborate and different from an art class. When we are talking about art class you need to make a finished product and it needs to look a certain way. When you are learning art you have to use a certain medium whether it is acrylic, oil or watercolor. However, art therapy is more about letting the client look within and deal with their inner experience. It is used in a lot of areas like collages, correctional facilities, senior citizen centers, shelters, and therapy offices.
What kind of art do I make in art therapy?
It depends on what we are delving into. For example, one has a client who is dejected and not feeling good about whatever is going on in their life. There is something called as a gratitude tree. The licensed art therapist will show them this image: a tree which has a ground, a sun or moon behind it. On the trunk of the tree you write “I am grateful for”. On the branches you write all the things you are grateful for, it could be chocolates, it could be book or necklaces, family friends, anything. On the ground you write things that calm you, support you and ground you. On the son or the moon (whatever you choose to draw behind the tree) you write the things that inspire you: it could be a person, a quote, a song, a book or anything. Then the client is asked to paint it however they want.
During process when you are putting it all together you have to look within and delve deeper to put it all on paper. Also when you paint or colour it is very calming and you are completely in the moment. And through the process you realize (in this example) that although things might not be working out, there are so many things that one has and can be grateful for. This is just an example.
Similar to that there are many different techniques of assessment depending on what we are working with and the requirement.
Is art therapy restricted to certain mental health problems?
Art therapy is usually used in conjunction with other psychotherapy. It helps with emotional difficulties, stress, PTSD, anxiety or even family or relationship problems.
So like even this gratitude tree I was talking about, if there is a couple and you are administering it as a therapist then each partner draws a gratitude tree. What they draw is what they are grateful for in their partner. So both partners take their time and make the gratitude tree. It can be very healing in relationships and especially when suppose there is an interpersonal problem or a problem between the couple. Sometimes one is so focused on the problem, so this actually helps you look at what you love about the person, it brings you closer. When they complete the activity and once it is shared with the other partner it brings them together and makes them feel cherished and loved and understood. They understand what actually the partner does appreciate.
So in conclusion it used along with counselling and psychotherapy and overall it helps you.
Do I need someone to guide me or is art therapy something I can do on my own?
One needs to go to a licensed art therapy practitioner or art therapist because it needs to be done by somebody who is certified in that. Usually, an art therapy practitioner would be somebody who already has a master’s in psychology or with a specialization and the have also been certified in administrating art therapy.
Is there a particular reason they need to go to an art therapist? There are a lot of videos online and on YouTube about art therapy and doing it by yourself.
I think just like how when you have a headache you google and find a solution and you try home remedies. We just want to try out interesting things out there like DIYS so similarly many people want to try out these exercises and I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying it out. However, when you do any of these activities which tap into you emotional or mental health a lot emotions or feeling that are below the surface bubble up and are you equipped to handle that?
A lot of times if I work with somebody along with counselling if I am also administrating art therapy sometimes what happens is a lot of feelings come to the surface, they have an emotional release. They might just cry or they might require a couple more sessions of counselling because a lot of feelings and emotions will just pish them down and we don’t realize its all there and sometimes one small thing can bring it up. That’s why I would say I would help if you go to licensed person because while it may be fun to try it out what if somethings come out and you feel more like a mess at that point and you really need help. Things can be very fragile.
Why and how do you think art therapy is beneficial?
It helps with people with stress, behavioral or social problems, traumatic events, relationships and more. It can be very healing along with psychotherapy. Its not boring, its creative and you enjoy it. Without thinking too much you are able to get that feeling out. Sometimes when you counsel somebody it’s more of talking and people get uncomfortable but what I have noticed is that through art therapy you don’t have to probe too much. What they put on paper and the colours they use and things they write it gives you a good understanding of what is going on within.
From you experience can you say that art therapy has actually helped people and worked? Since I am a counselling psychologist I use it especially with children because I feel it really does help them. When they don’t want to verbalize and they are uncomfortable talking about certain things this is another way to break the ice and to get them comfortable and also to help them feel that it is safe and that it is ok. Sometimes people also get very awkward looking within and talking about their feelings, so this helps in that way.
There was this couple that I worked with and I made them do that gratitude tree that I was talking out. And they felt so happy when they looked at each other gratitude tress, it literally filled their heart with love. Because sometimes when you are having a conflict you don’t realize how much the other person cares for you, we only feel the other person is being critical.
There are so many tests that are there in art therapy that can tell you a lot. You ask a person to draw a person picking an apple from the tree. This tells you a lot about the person who has drawn it. The levels the of the tree where the apples are drawn signify the aspirations the person has. The lines and cervices on the tree tell you which age to which age they probably would have had certain issues. They way the person is picking the apple: Some people draw a ladder showing the person requires support in their life. It is very insightful. Just looking at the drawing you understand lot more and then you can talk to them and it unravels.
I find it very insightful and therapeutic because the person feels more comfortable when you use it along with counselling. I like to use it with counselling and once things unravel and you are talking about what you experienced at different points in your life it opens up this channel of communication, then you can look at solutions.
I had tried the picking the apple exercise with a 14-year-old. This child had scribbled all over like the person did not have features: It was just a figure with a black pen scribble all over the body though the picture looked very organized and systematic. When we delved deeper in therapy we realized the child had a lot of self-esteem issues which shows in the colors, scribbles and dark stores.
How does art therapy help me?
What I noticed is when the client does these activities it is very calming, their mind is just completely there, it is not scattered and you are completely focused out yourself and the activity. It encourages you to look within and deal with whatever you feel within inside. It is quite beneficial to the person who is doing it as it is not intrusive, in a very subtle manner they are able to look within without feeling awkward.