By Julia Miller | Photography courtesy of the American Art Therapy Association
Using art therapy to address a variety of challenges – from anxiety and depression to traumatic brain injuries – has been effective in helping patients lead healthy and productive lives.
From healing to better self-awareness, therapists across Mississippi and the country are using art to work with individuals, families, and communities to enhance clients’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
“When I came to Mississippi [in 1982] I was the only art therapist,” says Susan Anand, who works in the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Mississippi Medical Center. “It started in psychiatry, and it’s expanded into rehabilitation, medical settings and treating educational delays.”
Anand’s educational journey actually began with a fine arts bachelor’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington. After graduation, she read a book about art therapy and knew it was what she wanted to do. Anand went on to get her master’s degree at New York University, where she studied under art therapy pioneer Edith Kramer.
“A lot of therapists use the art to lead to talking,” Anand says. “[Kramer] really focused on the art.”
Like Anand and Kramer, art therapists tend to have an artistic background and work with patients to use art materials more effectively. They focus on the creation of the artwork, whether it’s a drawing, painting or sculpture, rather than just what the artwork may mean.
“The creative process and the resulting art work increases self-awareness and helps manage behaviors,” she says. “It can be hard to say what art therapy is. I can say what it’s not. It’s not a coloring book.”
Any art, even coloring, can be a release or can function like meditation. Although it can help people unwind, art therapy must also involve therapeutic skills.
“You’re getting two for one,” Anand explains. “You have someone who has a good understanding of psychotherapy and someone who has a good understanding of art and how to use it.”
Anand says art therapy has been particularly effective for veterans or those dealing with trauma.
“Whether manmade or natural, they can’t verbalize what happened,” she says. “Partly because of what happens to the brain when it goes through trauma.”
The U.S. military and the National Endowment for the Arts have even partnered together to invest in art therapies for veterans. These techniques have also been used in the aftermath of disasters, like hurricanes and tornadoes or mass shootings.
As the field expands, Anand works to expand her own applications. She works with the MIND Center at UMMC to help patients with memory loss, patients in the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital and with victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“We don’t discriminate,” she says. “I’ve never really encountered anyone in my career who couldn’t do art therapy.”
Anand says one girl she works with is paralyzed from the neck down. They have helped her to paint with her mouth. No matter what limitations patients may be fighting, Anand is able to accommodate each of them.
Art therapy can also help restore someone’s sense of self. Those in the midst of a battle with cancer can find this to be incredibly important. During treatment, patients can sometimes forget all the aspects of who they are, and art can help remind them.
“After diagnosis, they struggle so much with the label ‘I’m a cancer patient,’” she says. “It gives them a larger identity.”
In Mississippi, art therapists must be licensed and are required to have an ATR-BC (art therapist register — board certified) certification and complete continuing education. The credentials are achieved after completing a master’s degree at one of the 35 AATA-Approved art therapy graduate programs and 1,000 supervised hours with patients.
OTHER TYPES OF THERAPY
Dr. Maggie Parker, a Jackson counselor, specializes in play therapy and uses expressive art as a tool.
“In therapy, the relationship is the most important thing,” she says. “Sometimes words get in the way. When we draw, a lot more of our emotions come through.”
Parker has found art to be useful to get to the underlying issues for all ages. In children, it can be useful because they are not developmentally able to express themselves as well with words. Although adults may be able to use words better, they tend to censor themselves more.
“As I’m having this conversation, I’m choosing my words carefully,” Parker says. “Sometimes it may be fear, or you may not be aware of what you’re not saying. With art that part of your brain is pushed aside.”
Parker emphasizes that she is not a certified art therapist. For her, art is simply a tool for more psychoanalytic treatment. Parker studied at the University of North Texas, one of the largest play therapy institutions in the world.