Art as therapy – Part I

Almost two years ago, through a slightly odd series of events, I began working at a local private hospital, running art workshops for people in the mental health ward. Workshops is really the wrong word – it places too much emphasis on the learning skills and techniques side of things and what I do is not really about that. I’m a lot more about play. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.

To start with, I’m not an art therapist. Not in any way at all. I’m an artist and a bunch of other things but I have no formal qualifications in counselling, psychology or psychiatry. There was an art as therapy course I could have taken as an elective when I was doing undergrad but I decided, in my infinite wisdom, that historical perspectives on photomedia was a much better, and useful, option. My job at the hospital is not to provide art therapy – there is a real, proper art therapist who comes in to do that. What I do is something different; while it can be therapeutic, it is not therapy in the way we define normally define it.

My semi-official title is diversional art therapist, which still has the words art and therapist a bit to close together for my liking, but it is a closer summation of what I actually get up to in the ward. The art group that I run is just that; it is diversional. It is about giving patients something else to do that isn’t sitting around the ward talking, or thinking, about what’s going on. It is a distraction. It is giving patients something else to occupy themselves, and their minds, with for two hours. It is giving them a chance not to think and to make instead. This is really what art is to so many people, a way of distracting themselves and to work through whatever is stuck in their brain. It’s why it is so important.

Glue painting by patients

Glue painting by patients

I said at the beginning that I don’t like the emphasis on learning the term workshop creates. This is not because I am completely against teaching skills. Quite the contrary – I will always happily teach anyone anything if there is something they want to learn and actively sneak skills into activities I have planned. It’s just that my aim isn’t to teach. If patients pick up and master new skills then that is fantastic but I am so much more invested in getting them to make, to play, to create.

I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of art and the benefits of spending time playing and making. For me, the important part of the group is not the end product, but rather the two hours spent making something. It is in that time, the magic things happen. Something shifts in our brains – one part will shift off while distracted with making, allowing another to fire up. Through making, our thinking can change, new ideas can come through and we can see things differently. I find process driven and repetitive action work, such as origami, best for this. Once the motion, making a paper flower for example, has been learnt and can be done without thought, the brain starts to slow down and we begin to focus on the present, rather than stressing about the past or future. I refer to these kind of activities as mindless, though the current buzzword for them is mindful.

Offering people the time to make, especially people in hospital, is also quite an important process. You have to give patients permission to create, to tell them it is allowed and show them that they can just make things without it having to ‘be’ something at the end. It is quite incredible to see how many people feel guilty about taking time to make something – especially it seems among those with mental health issues. There is always something else that you could be doing that is seems more important, like general housework, and that taking time away from that to do something to relax or de-stress is seen to be so selfish. You almost have to sit people down and say, it’s okay, you’re allowed to take an hour to do this and the world won’t end if you do it.

Origami flowers made by patients

Origami flowers made by patients

This has become a lot more about my experiences than I had intended – I wanted to talk about art as therapy in a broader sense but that has gotten lost in explaining what I do and think. There will have to be a part two methinks.

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