The power of art therapy

The Edge - Image supplied by one of Janeen Cameron's clients

“The Edge”. PHOTO: Supplied.

If you thought pulling out your adult colouring books, listening to your favourite music or going to a Zumba dance class was a great way to relieve stress, then it turns out you’re on to something.

Increasing numbers of people practising arts-based hobbies, along with a growing understanding of mental health, is leading psychologists to conduct multiple studies about the therapeutic effects art has on mental health.

This combination of art and psychology has led to the creation of an integrative therapeutic practice called “art psychotherapy”, which is designed to improve mental and emotional well-being.

Art psychotherapy uses different artistic pursuits, such as collaging, painting or sculpting, to give the person creating the artwork a choice of how they wish to express themselves.

It is especially popular for people who find it difficult to put their emotions into words – the normal requirement for effectively completing standard therapy sessions.

'In A Hole' - Artwork by Dr Jo Kelly

‘In A Hole’. Artwork by Jo Kelly

Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association president  Jo Kelly says art therapy is changing people’s lives on a daily basis, both in Australia and overseas.

Set up originally as the Australian National Art Therapy Association in 1987, the ANZATA approves programs for art therapy across China and Singapore, with each culture adapting the practice to suit their own artistic styles.

“Art dates back to caveman times when language was not fully formed, and the main communication technique was creating paintings on stone” Kelly says. “But the therapy potential of art was not fully realised until recently.”

Nowadays, art therapy is used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, anxiety, depression, anger management and workplace or relationship stresses, and covers a whole range of age groups.

“I was working with Indigenous children in long-term foster care,” Kelly says. “There was one girl from a foster home who changed schools four different times while I was working with her. Each new school brought with it new parents, new friends, and a brand new life which she needed to adjust to.

“I never knew when she had changed schools until I rang the administration to ask how she was going, only to find out she was gone. From there I would track down which school she was now at and make sure she was okay.”

Kelly says she wanted to ensure the art therapy sessions she conducted with the girl were helping her cope with the changes. They were making a folder for all of the artwork to go into when Kelly was asked a question that stopped her in her tracks.

“Jo, when my folder is full, will you be finished with me? Will you stop working with me and will that be it?”

Kelly responded quickly, saying she would simply start another folder when it was full.

“This question was heartbreaking in one sense, because this little person has been through so many changes, in parents and in friends, that she was assuming I would change as well,” Kelly says.

Kelly’s voice becomes quieter as she remembers what happens next.

“Unfortunately, after four years the funding stopped and the work I was doing with her had to stop too, which was just very sad,” she says. Kelly says the artwork produced by the girl expressed the issues she was dealing with in everyday life, and helped her cope with them.

“Those who stopped the funding have proved how much they lack an understanding about the benefits of art therapy,” she says.

Budge Goes To Heaven - Image supplied by one of Janeen Cameron's clients

‘Budge Goes To Heaven’. PHOTO: Supplied.

As a relatively new form of therapy, with only a limited number of people who have studied the practice, a lack of understanding is not uncommon. In fact, until the middle of the twentieth century, not much was known about art therapy at all.

Eric Cunningham Dax was one of the first psychiatrists to try to understand the benefits and meaning of art produced by those with mental disabilities.

He became increasingly interested in the art produced by those who were taking part in occupational therapy programs provided in mental asylums. After moving from England to Australia, he became Chairman of the Mental Hygiene Authority (now the Mental Health Authority) in 1952.

He used his new position to introduce an art therapy program into all Victorian psychiatric hospitals and it became mandatory to offer it to all patients.

When Victoria’s psychiatric hospitals started closing down in the 1980s, 30 years’ worth of art produced through Dax’s program was set to be destroyed. But Dax saw the education potential in the art, and salvaged about 8,000 of the works to star the Cunningham Dax Collection in Melbourne.

“This collection is a static exhibition of the artwork of the mentally ill,” Kelly says.

It is comprised of two key eras. One is between 1940 and 1979 and includes the art produced in psychiatric hospitals, and the other is from 1980 to the present day, which consists of art donated by community groups and individual artists.”

In 2000, the collection was expanded, and it now includes artworks created by those who have been through traumatic experiences including childhood abuse, tsunamis and earthquakes, seeking asylum, bushfires and even the Holocaust. Currently, this exhibit is one of a kind in Australia, and one of three across the world.

Registered nurse and Hollywood Private Hospital art therapist Dena Lawrence conducts both normal therapy and art therapy sessions in Western Australia and says art therapy can be of great benefit.

“There are some people who cannot express things through verbal language, who find certain events unspeakable, but can create pictures worth a thousand words,” she says. “The pictures will often come out with angry brush strokes like volcanic lava in the first few therapy sessions, but over time they become softer as the person heals.”

Medusa - Image supplied by one of Janeen Cameron's clients

‘Medusa’. PHOTO: Supplied.

Lawrence studied fine art and psychology, and later went on to do her Masters degree in art therapy at Edith Cowan University. Art therapy is not yet taught at to undergraduates.

“You study the history of art and art therapy and how it has evolved over the years to incorporate a larger range of mental health disorders. You also have to learn how to express your own vulnerabilities through art in order to understand how to help others” Lawrence says.

ANZATA art therapist Jennifer Jamieson works in WA and says her experiences with patients allow her to see the benefits art therapy can have on mental health.

She recalls a time when she was working with a young girl who was the victim of sexual abuse.

“I worked with this young girl for many months, seeing her weekly. Initially, she didn’t want to make any images, just doodling small pen marks on large pages. Then I decided to give her a large block of clay,” Jamieson says.

“To work with clay, you need to beat it up, smash it, knead it and throw it and this is exactly what this young girl did, week after week. But gradually she began creating a ‘monster-dinosaur’ with it instead, which she told me was extinct and harmless. I was struck by the symbolism but remained a silent witness.

“One day it was the girls last session, her parents couldn’t bring her any more. I presented her monster-dinosaur and assumed she would want to keep working on it. Instead, she went straight to a large whiteboard and drew a hill with a small girl stood on it wearing a backpack ‘full of all the things she will need’. She drew the same girl at the bottom of the hill as well, before turning to me with a huge smile and saying ‘the girls journey is over now and she will be ok’.”

Jamieson describes this moment as the first time she truly understood the positive power of art therapy.

IKON Institute of Australia lecturer Janeen Cameron also understands the power of art, and is an avid painter herself.

Janeen Cameron in front of her artwork

Janeen Cameron in front of her artwork. PHOTO: Supplied.

She says that creating her own art helps her teaching and helps her relate to her clients. She has created multiple artworks that hang on the walls of her house, and uses emotional stimuli in order to create them.

Many of her paintings visualise certain transitions that occur in life, such as health, loss, grief, separation and relocation, which are often the same issues her clients are dealing with. She also paints images based on poems or songs that speak to her.

“Painting has helped me so many times in my life, has helped me figure out who I am and who I want to be, has helped me fight my demons and has improved my understanding of the world around me,” Cameron says.

“It is why I love the practice so much. So many people, including myself, have used art to take control of their own mental health rather than relying on others to dictate what they need to do, and it does wonders for self-recovery,” she says.

“By putting an internal personal story into a visual expression of it, people see that story in a different way and go, ‘Holy shit! It’s not as bad as I think!’. Or they go, ‘Oh shit it’s really bad! I need to sort this out.’ And if that is the case then we can start exploring ways of fixing it.

“You don’t need any art skill to do it either. It is just putting an emotion, whatever that might be, down onto the paper.”

There is hope among many art therapists that the practice will continue to grow in popularity, as more people become aware of it.

“Often how we heal can be through connecting with ourselves, or seeing expressions of how others are feeling through the art they produce,” Kelly says.

“I think that seeing the creativity people have formed from devastation and grief can ground us, and becomes a positive influence to our lives as human beings.”