Art as a tool for your well-being

15 February 2015

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Think back to your childhood when you made art.

Whether it was in the classroom or at home; painting, drawing or even doodling in your notebook, we have all found it to be fun and therapeutic.

It can give us a sense of who we are, bring people closer together and even simply offer us enjoyment.

Although this is a very natural process, there is a growing market that assists people in conducting these remedial exercises. It is known as ‘art therapy’.

What is art therapy, exactly? It is a practice instructed by a therapist which allows the art-making process to communicate a client’s own self-expression, offering them a place to acknowledge their issues, create goals to overcome them, or to just ‘make art’.

Dr Patricia Fenner, the Senior Lecturer and Course Coordinator of the Master of Art Therapy program at La Trobe University, tells upstart of the psychotherapeutic aspects of art therapy.

“You talk in therapy to get to know what is taking place emotionally and psychologically and what we think, and in art therapy we use images and materials to do something similar.”

Today, this practice is at its peak in Melbourne. With many individuals and groups using it as the preferred form of therapy to assist in their issues, it truly paints a picture of how beneficial it can be for all of us.

This has been made possible by the increased number of training and study programs across different institutions, designed to prepare up-and-coming therapists to practice in this growing field.

“Art therapy has been developing in Melbourne for some decades very quietly, but it’s been much more concentrated since the beginning of this century,” says Fenner.

“In the end of the 1990s, people were talking about practicing art therapy in a very intentional way, but there weren’t any means for training. These days there are several groups and courses that train people in art therapy.

“So, I think Melbourne is quite a hub for art therapy practices and studies in Australia,” she says.

However, as the practice is still growing in Australia, overseas research can be used to demonstrate just how effective art therapy really is.

Professor of Art Therapy at the Florida State University, David Gussak Ph.D, conducted a study in 2009 on both male and female prisoners with diagnosed depression. What he found was a significant increase in the internal focus of control, as well as an improvement in the moods of the inmates.

Art therapy is certainly beneficial for those with mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and those who battle substance abuse; as it is not only used professionally to unearth and tackle these issues, but also as a form of escape.

Melburnian art therapist and nurse, Maggie Date, tells upstart how art therapy is used as a distraction for some of the people she works with.

“I work for the Royal Children’s nursing and I go into people’s homes and look after the children there. When I go, I take my art therapy skills with me,” she says.

“So if I go in to see a little child and I need to give them an injection because they have cancer and they’re very apprehensive about that, but they have drawing tools, I say, ‘I love drawing! Would you like to make a picture?’

“So we’ll often sit down and do some drawing together for a while first, and then we’ll get to the hard part of why I’m there.”

Thus, the ‘therapeutic’ aspect is often disguised by the pure enjoyment of making art.

“To just sit down and make art with someone – that’s enough. When I worked with adult cancer patients who were in palliation, they don’t want to do a therapy session, they just want to make art.

“That’s enough, because the joy of actually expressing yourself in art is transforming,” says Date.

This opens discussion for why art therapy can be beneficial to absolutely anyone, for all sorts of reasons.

“Art therapy is undertaken in settings where mental health issues are predominant. However, it is equally as appropriate for art therapy to be used with people developmentally,” says Fenner.

Not only does Date help her clients achieve this, but she herself has experienced the internal benefits of art therapy sessions.

“What I found with the process was that it connected me with me. I was able to express myself and what I needed to onto the paper,” she says.

“That gave me a sense of freedom and also validated that whatever I had to express was absolutely perfect, the way that I express it.”

Achieving a sense of identity and personal growth through art therapy isn’t exclusive to artists. Anyone can use visuals and materials to further explore themselves.

“If the client comes along and they’ve never drawn before, that’s fine, because there’s no right or wrong in art therapy and there’s no need to be an artist when you come to art therapy,” says Date.

“So, a client might come and they might sit in front of a piece of paper and just do a line – that’s fantastic, because then we can talk about that line. ”

Art therapy can also be applied in groups to help people achieve a sense of belonging and also improve on one’s relationship with another.

“Working with arts in the community, you’ve got a lot of people around the table. So, you’re expressing yourself onto the paper in journey with other people. You’re exploring together, which gives everyone I have been seeing a sense of acceptance,” says Date.

So, as this very innocent yet effective industry continues to expand in both Melbourne and all of Australia, people from all walks of life with any issue are encouraged to participate, as it has the ability to really transform one’s self for the better.

“It’s life changing.”


Julian GasparriTHUMBJulian Gasparri is a Bachelor of Journalism graduate at La Trobe University, freelance writer and radio presenter. Follow can follow him on Twitter:: @JulianGasparri