Art Therapy: How it works, the benefits, how to start
Art Therapy: What it is and isn’t
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Today we’re talking with Raquel Farrell-Kirk, MS, ATR-BC about art therapy: What it is and isn’t. Raquel has been a professional art therapist for 17 years. She’s worked in a variety of settings where art therapy can be found; in psychiatric settings, outpatients, also in educational settings with children with special needs. Raquel owns and operates a learning center for children with special needs who are being homeschooled.
Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the arts, art making, and the creative process as the core of how we do our therapy. It is how we affect change, how we treat clients and explore their issues and give them new skills. We do that all through art and art-making.
What does an art therapy session look like?
At the beginning of a session, you are going to “get a feel” for where your client “is” that week. We check in with our client and ask how things have been since the last time? What’s going on? Then, the middle of the session is the “meat” portion….the art making. I find out where you are and I’ll say, “Listen, this is what I thought would be really helpful for us to work on today.” This is the theme, this is the “why”, these are the art materials. Are you okay with that? Can we go ahead and get started? Then the bulk of the time is really devoted to allowing that person to make their art.
Most art therapists like to leave some time at the end of the process to talk about what you made, what was frustrating, and what worked. If you completed a piece, what did it mean to you? Then, any topic or confusion, that was brought up as someone was making the art, has an opportunity to be discussed.
How can my child benefit from art therapy?
We like to say at my learning center that art therapy classes take a backdoor approach. If I said to a student, “Hey. I’d really like you to go see Mrs. Raquel every week so that she can work with you on social skills and how to follow instructions and control your impulses.” Hmm, that’s not the most appealing description. They’re probably going to balk at that or be resistant to that.
However, if I said, “I’d like you to go see Mrs. Raquel. She has a really special art group every week.” Then when they come to that art group, things are happening on two levels. On one level there’s the content of what we’re doing: We’re making a collage. But, I know that what I’m doing is also setting up a process where you’re getting to practice those skills. So maybe I’m bringing you in a group of three because I know that I want you to develop a skill related to working with others.
I’m not going to bring you in by yourself. I’m bringing you in on a group of three and I have enough crayons or markers for everybody, but I’m only going to put out one pack. So, now everyone has to share. They have to negotiate. They have to say, “Can I borrow that one?” Maybe I’m giving you one sheet of paper, so now you have to plan and think to yourself, “Okay, we’re going to draw on this as a group. What do we have to do?” This allows you to use the art, which is something that is inherently relaxing and enjoyable and can make people feel very productive and proud, to allow them to feel good and to say, “Hey, look what I just made.” But, you’re using it to get to the therapeutic exercise of practicing sequencing and having impulse control.
If I give you watercolors and you don’t practice sequencing, you’re going to get muddy water because you’re going to do things out of order. Or, you’re going to be really impulsive and now you’ve got brown paint when really you were trying to mix a pretty color. So, it’s a hands-on way to help you practice the skillset you need. And that’s where it might be different from an art class
The art therapist’s goals are different than the art teachers goals
The art therapist’s goals are going to focus much more on the process of what you’re doing and less on the product. More on behaviors and themes than an art teacher’s goals. Art teachers are going to focus on teaching you content or teaching you a specific skill.
Does it help with reducing anxiety in children?
Yes, it can help very much. The research in our field and in related disciplines is growing; psychology and other mental health disciplines and even nursing, they’re starting to do more and more research and write about the benefits and put them into quantifiable, measurable studies. And they are finding that you can measure and find decreases in people’s stress levels, decreases in anxiety levels, and even decreases in less subjective reporting and more objective measure.
How can art therapy be used in the aftermath of a traumatic event like the shooting at Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School? What was the goal of art therapy for that purpose? At that time?
In the immediate aftermath of an event like that, you are really doing a lot of support. You’re not really trying to unpack details or ask people to rehash details. You’re doing a lot of support, a lot of psychoeducational approaches and implementing some coping skills: “Here are some things to do when you feel overwhelmed” type of things. We did a lot of things like open and close our sessions with deep breathing, with information on trauma and stress, and we did a lot of art activities designed to give people some flexibility.
As an example, we worked on mandalas (an ancient practice). Mandalas are a very intricate pattern, usually contained within a circle. It’s used for meditation. Coloring and drawing a mandala can be very relaxing. We would try to do activities like that so that we were giving people a place to come for some respite; a place to come and not be alone; a place to come and get some information and to do an art activity that would help bring those anxiety levels down and bring people in the community together in one place.
How would I incorporate art therapy into my child’s program? How do parents know to ask for your services?
Parents are the best advocates for their children. It is important for parents to know what’s out there so they can say, “You know, maybe my son would benefit from art therapy.” Some of the things to consider: if you feel like maybe your child has hit a plateau or isn’t responding well to other therapies, try something different. Is there a different avenue for working on these skills that my child might respond to better?” Sometimes children have had really negative experiences in the past with therapies or feeling like therapy meant that there was something wrong with them, or was boring. Art can allay some of those concerns for the child.
It may seem less threatening and more enjoyable to the person participating in it, which is important when you are trying to get them to REALLY participate. Let’s do some art projects that are going to help you, and maybe by doing that art, you’re working on some fine motor skill, or some impulse control issue or some social skills or emotional issues.
We do work really closely with other therapists in other disciplines and with the consent of the family, I would say, “I would love to talk to the other therapists and let’s see what they’re working on and how can we support each other and be on the same page?” It is quite possible that I’m seeing something different in my sessions than they’re seeing. Oftentimes, art therapy is very strength-based, whereas other therapies are more focused on the deficits. Art Therapy tends to focus a lot on what people can do: You can make this picture, or you can make this collage. An additional benefit is that you can express yourself.
Example: Here’s what happened in my art room:
I can remember when I worked for the public school system…a student in my office who struggled in class, struggled with attention, struggled with behavior, and struggled with motivation was working on art for 45 minutes, reading poetry to base his art on. And I said to him, “Do you think your teachers would be surprised if I told them that you came into my office today and spent 45 minutes reading poetry and making art?” And he nodded his head. He said, “Yes, they would.”
Do you have to be skilled artistically to benefit from art therapy?
You don’t have to feel like you’re good at art or know a lot about art to benefit from art therapy. There are lots of people who come to art therapy with no previous art experience and sometimes come a little reluctantly feeling like they really didn’t know how to participate. But, they then find out that it’s about the process, about self-expression, and it’s about the freedom to explore things. It’s NOT about what it looks like, or whether it’s good enough to hang on the refrigerator or hang in a museum.
What should parents know about art therapy
Parents need to know that art therapy is out there and it might be a really great way to engage your kids and get some additional benefits, sometimes, more quickly because it’s something that is applied and hands-on more than other modalities. I’d also like them to not be afraid to try to bring art into their child’s life. Don’t feel like you have to be an artist in order to incorporate art into your life with your child.
How do I find an art therapist?
If you are already seeing another mental health professional, you can ask them if they know art therapists in the area. Most states have an art therapy chapter. For example, where I live in Florida, we have the Florida Art Therapy Association. They all have websites and Facebook pages so you can look up (Google) art therapy associations wherever you live. You can also go to the American Art Therapy Association (arttherapy.org) website and they have a locator function on their site where you can find a therapist in your area.
In Conclusion: Final Message
Art Therapy is about the process and self-expression. And, it’s also about the freedom to explore. It is NOT about what it looks like.
Racquel’s easy challenge
Go to the art museum and look at some all of the different things in there. You don’t have to go there with answers and knowledge in your head. Go there together with your child and say, “Let’s go look and see what we like. And if you find one thing that you like, then talk about why you like it.” It is that simple to do. There’s no need to feel intimidated by art or to feel intimidated by how you choose to bring that into your child’s life.
Links mentioned in this episode:
ABOUT: Raquel Farrell-Kirk, MS, ATR-BC has been an art therapist for seventeen years. In that time she has worked in a wide range of settings, including inpatient psychiatric facilities, outpatient substance abuse treatment centers, nursing homes and educational settings. Raquel is past president for the Florida Art Therapy Association and has served in a variety of roles for the American Art Therapy Association. She has been featured in radio and print interviews and has presented nationally and internationally on art therapy for a wide range of audiences. Raquel is a proud homeschool mom of three boys and the Program Director at Evolve Learning Community, an alternative education and resource center specializing in children with special needs.
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