Five Ways That Art Therapy Supports Recovery
According to a recent report, one in five (20%) young people aged 15-17 met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness. Between 2012 and 2014, the proportion of young people aged 15-17 who met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness has steadily increased from 18.2% to 20%.
Access to mental health services for this age group is among the lowest, with barriers identified such as awareness, access and acceptability of services. There needs to be more services to engage young people that are not only evidence-based but also youth-friendly and appealing (Young People’s Mental Health Over the Years Youth Survey 2012-14).
Programs which offer support through the creative arts can be used to engage young people, assist in their recovery and promote positive wellbeing.
Recovery in the context of mental health, as is true for other debilitating illnesses, does not always mean a restoration of perfect health. Recovery can be about finding an ability to live with persistent symptoms, restoration or reconstruction of identity, establishing new meaningful social connections, and developing a belief that life can still be worthwhile. (King, Baker & Neilson, 2015).
In their recent publication, "Creative Arts in Counseling and Mental Health", (2015), Robert King, Felicity Baker and Philip Neilson propose a theoretical framework for the use of creative arts in recovery. These five factors work in conjunction with one another to promote wellbeing.
The five factors are:
1. Behavioural Activation (getting up and out)
2. Self Efficiency/Mastery (gaining new skills)
3. Overcoming Experiential Avoidance (learning to accept challenges)
4. Personal Identity (re-identifying oneself, perhaps as an artist?)
5. Social Connectedness (making new friends)
In the youth art program where I currently work, the young people demonstrate these benefits on a daily basis.
For one, they turn up. Every day. And they stay.
Secondly, they make art. They try new materials and techniques. They develop new skills.
They learn to sit with an artwork through the challenges, the highs and lows of battling with the form and structure of a piece. They learn to accept that things don't always turn out as planned. They move to the next piece, taking with them new knowledge and the support of their tutor and peers telling them it's OK. We still think you're great! Try again!
We take photos of the young people as they are making their work, so they can see themselves as artists. The look of concentration in their faces, the carefully poised hands lovingly creating their work, the shapes, lines and colours emerging from their own fingertips. In her book, "Contemporary art therapy with adolescents", (1999), Shirley Riley describes depression as the antithesis of creativity. Let us perhaps say that creativity is the antithesis of depression. These young people, who may see themselves as depressed, anxious, homeless, abused, uneducated, hopeless and a myriad of other labels they have picked up on their journey, are now creators, artists, bringing things into being. What could be a more positive title to wear?
Here they are witnessed in their pain and glory. Here they are held in each other's respectful and caring gaze, an unspoken acknowledgement that they are all here together, driven by a need and finding an outlet for that need. Sometimes the young people talk about how lucky they are to have found this place, where they can come and feel safe and softly or loudly expess themselves in images. Some of them are suprised to find the acceptance and care they have come into, from the tutors and other young people. They test the allegiance and are amazed to find it both strong and flexible enough to take in even the most committed loner.
One of the young people recently told me that being part of the program has had a really positive effect on her self-esteem. Externally she seemed the same, but of course she had been changing, growing, repairing, recovering.
It's hard to measure internal change because we can't see it. This is why programs such as these are often overlooked for funding. We must ask the young people themselves. We must find ways to engage them on their terms. An art therapy program provides a perfect canvas for a young person to paint or repaint their life. Let's make sure our young people are creatively supported in their recovery.
Mission Australia (2015). Young people’s mental health over the years.Youth Survey 2012-14.
Neilsen, P., King, R., & Baker, F. (Eds.). (2015). Creative Arts in Counseling and Mental Health. SAGE Publications.
Riley, S. (1999). Contemporary art therapy with adolescents. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.