Picture a Healthier You Through Art Therapy

It’s commonly said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Art can move us, inspire us, and it can be either a satisfying hobby or a very rewarding profession for a talented few. But it’s not widely known that art therapy is an effective treatment used to help individuals with mental illness or addiction.

Recently I talked with Fran Belvin, an experienced licensed professional art therapist and colleague in Lexington, Kentucky. I asked Fran some questions about how art therapy works, and about some of its benefits for those with mental health concerns. Here’s our interview:

DS: What are a few of the primary goals and anticipated benefits of art therapy for those who are being treated for a mental illness or addiction?

FB: Art therapy allows individuals to express emotions, ideas, and experiences in a way that is different from verbal therapy. It uses the whole brain, engages all our senses, and taps into our intuition. The goals are the same as in any other type of mental health practice – increasing motivation to recover, greater clarity about recovery goals, and increased confidence in achieving those goals.

By activating the creative imagination, art therapy also fosters hope and self-confidence. Individuals who engage in art therapy activities often are surprised by how good they feel about their artwork, how relaxed they are, and how much their mood is improved by focusing their attention on a creative pursuit.

Of course, different art therapy interventions will produce different benefits. Inpatient groups tend to be based on positive psychology, a form of person-centered therapy that stresses positivity. Single issue-based groups and individual therapy might be directive and more trauma-focused or solution-focused.

DS: What are some typical activities that would take place in an individual or group art therapy session which is focused on improving mental health?

FB: Here are three examples:

1) After a brief relaxation exercise, participants are asked to imagine a remembered or imaginary place that feels very safe and secure, where they can be completely relaxed and comfortable. This is called a guided visualization. After imagining the sights, sounds, and smells in that place, they draw or paint their safe place. They are also encouraged to remember this place if they find themselves anxious or get triggered in the future.

2) Drawing or painting a “mandala” – a circular design or drawing – is a form a mindfulness practice. It is very relaxing and helps the mind focus.

3) Making a drawing or collage (a picture made by combining several magazine or calendar images) about a specific recovery goal can help a person develop a clearer picture of their goal, what the first steps may be, and what it will feel like to accomplish it. This helps the person invest in the goal, believe in it, and therefore, move toward it with more clarity and confidence.

DS: Do you have to have artistic ability to benefit from the therapy?

FB: Most assuredly not! Anyone can benefit from art therapy. It has nothing to do with making good art. The goal is to express whatever is inside without worrying about anyone judging the results. All efforts are welcomed, and there is no place for judgements – positive or negative.

DS: What kind of education, training and licensure do art therapists receive?

FB: Art therapists must have a master’s degree and a national credential which can be earned with about two years work experience after their education is completed. In Kentucky art therapists must obtain a license from the state after earning this credential.

DS: You’re a very experienced art therapist. Can you share a favorite story about someone you treated in a mental health setting and how they benefited from art therapy?

FB: Here are a couple of stories:

1) A woman in her 50’s with a depressive mood disorder was withdrawn and seemed to have some difficulty expressing herself verbally. The prompt for the group session was to choose an affirmation (a positive statement about oneself) from a list of many. She chose “I choose joy and self-acceptance” and painted a very bright, expressive image, and even added glitter to it. When it was her turn to share her painting with the group, other group members reflected the joy they felt when looking at her painting, and she responded tearfully, “I used to paint, but I stopped when I became depressed. I think I’ll get my paints out again when I get home!”

2) A 30-something man who claimed he had no “talent” for art made a collage illustrating his recovery goal of “being a better husband.” He expressed his goal with cut-out images of couples and families doing things together. When he shared his collage with the group, others related strongly to his message and his images, sparking a rich discussion of what makes a good spouse and good father. This man had his intention and his concerns supported and affirmed by the group, and others benefitted from hearing him and seeing his expression.

DS: Even if someone isn’t participating in art therapy, what are some examples of self-directed artistic expression that can be helpful in reducing stress or just to learn how to relax more effectively?

FB: Some people enjoy the adult coloring books that are everywhere. They can be fun and relaxing self-care tools. There are also a few self-help books out there by art therapists that lead you in creating art on your own. One I particularly like is called The Art Therapy Source Book, by Cathy Malchiodi.

DS: How can someone find an art therapist in their local area? What web sites or other resources related to art therapy do you recommend where more information can be found?

FB: Check out the American Art Therapy Association website.

About Fran Belvin, MA, ATR-BC, LPAT

Fran Belvin is a Licensed Professional Art Therapist working in Lexington, KY with cancer patients at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center and with acute psychiatric patients at Eastern State Hospital. She has practiced art therapy since 1997, previously providing bereavement services through hospice, practicing in the substance abuse field, and in private practice. Fran has trained graduate students and behavioral health professionals in art therapy, grief, substance use disorders, trauma informed care, trauma treatment, and Motivational Interviewing. She served as a member of the Kentucky Board of Licensure for Professional Art Therapists 2000-2004 and as chair from 2007 to 2012.

Thanks so much to Fran for sharing her time and expertise!

Here’s a question: How has art been therapeutic for you when you’ve faced difficult personal challenges? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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