October 31, 2016
The assortment of colors — Cerulean Blue, Jazzberry Jam and Mango Tango — spring from the crayon box as we dig them into the white cardstock. In a flurry of motion, our 14 hands release the week’s frustrations and stress as the hues of a crayon rainbow emerge. As our nervous chatter turns to laughter, weW begin to create a beautiful piece of art.
C Magazine’s experience with art therapy began by marking a page with a thick black pen to access our emotions. We were told to “mark in” by drawing, scribbling or writing anything to loosen our minds. Hesitant about what to do, a few of us timidly drew small swirls and flowers in the corners of the page.
After marking in, we moved to a table-sized canvas, where we were encouraged to aggressively scribble with crayon, eventually moving on to watercolor paint. We sprinkled salt crystals across the canvas to create an icy effect for a final touch and allowed the paint to dry. By the end of the session, we had turned unbridled scribbles into a visual representation of our feelings and thoughts.
Art therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by an art therapist, employ the creative process and various forms of art media to create expressive, personal pieces. The resulting artwork serves to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts and foster self-awareness. The process of gaining perspective of one’s mental, physical and emotional state through visual and interactive art forms can prompt psychological catharsis.
When we started our art therapy session with Carol Mellberg, Associate Director of Clinical Services at the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) and certified art therapist, she explained that our initial marks from the “marking in” stage told her a lot about our interior process. “It’s a wonderful nonverbal way to understand somebody and what’s going on inside. Especially when we work with children that aren’t ready to just talk and do talk therapy,” Mellberg said.
Art therapy can be intimidating for teens because it tends to make them feel vulnerable. When art therapists look at art as a type of assessment, they can get a sense of their clients’ mental stability based on the marks they make. “We can sometimes see that people are feeling very depressed because they can not make many marks,” Mellberg said, “Their marks are small or in the corner of the page, and they don’t have a lot of energy in their line.”
The process of making a mark on a piece of paper may help an art therapist understand a client’s level of mental stability, but the true breakthrough of the experience happens when clients learn to love their mark: “The art that comes out of you and the mark that you make is who you are,” Mellberg said, “You can’t be someone else’s mark.”
The action of marking in allows a therapist to symbolically analyze a client’s mental state. Carl Jung,a renowned psychotherapist, was best known for founding the study of analytical psychiatry and developing theories about the analysis of the subconscious. According to Jung, the layers of a person’s subconscious mind retain forgotten memories and experiences which shape how they analyze and experience the world.
He felt the best way to comprehend the “deep subconscious” was through symbols, and that analyzing them was one of the only ways to understand the parts of a person’s mind.
Jung’s research led him to the theory that the mind attempts to combine the conscious and unconscious in a process he called “individuation.” He believed that individuation is the mind’s attempt to become more whole. Art therapy can be used to carry out individuation in order to better understand what the subconscious is communicating to the conscious.
An art therapy treatment involves a multi-step process that is adjusted for each patient, but art can have a significant affect on anyone, regardless of how long it takes for them to gain the courage to begin the process.
Similarly, Kate Collie, a PhD and Palo Alto art therapist, states the importance of the different processes of art therapy: “Perhaps the most significant feature of art therapy is the variety of different processes that can be going on at once.” In the context of trauma, art therapy can help with stress reduction, emotional expression and improvement of self-esteem. Although art therapy is often used by people who have difficulty putting their tough experiences into words, “Art therapy can be used with just about anybody,” Collie said.
“It can be the first time someone ever felt like they’ve had a way to meaningfully express their narrative,” said Stephanie Schilling, an educationally related mental health therapist (ERMS) at Palo Alto High School (Paly). Schilling has used art therapy with a variety of students to cope with ERMS issues such as ADHD, anxiety and depression.
Schilling’s office, a safe and comfortable space located at the top floor of the Tower Building, is only one of many on-campus offices where Paly students can talk to a therapist. “Studies have shown that 75% of what’s therapeutic about any type of counseling is the relationship that is built with a client.” Schilling said. She works hard to nurture her relationships with clients and gain their trust until they feel they can always open up to her.
Schilling uses art therapy to develop this relationship. “Everyone can look at art and experience it, and it solidifies the relationship with your therapist being the one who is understanding your art,” she said.
Schilling’s approach to her therapy sessions involves reflecting on the client’s day and finding solutions to help them recover from the trauma they have experienced or are experiencing. Sometimes her clients have not reached the point where they are able to express their emotions and thoughts. “They can’t process whatever trauma has just happened, so art is one of the ways that we start to process it,” Schilling said.
For some students it can be hard to communicate what they are going through verbally, so they turn to art to express their feelings through a different medium. “If they don’t want to talk about it or feel like they can’t verbally express it, then maybe they can draw it,” Schilling said.
Clients’ drawings bring their stories to life. “Whatever their story is, they get to communicate in a way that [gives them] a sense of agency and autonomy for the first time, but I also think that there is a way of expressing how they perceive the world through art,” Schilling said.
A Paly student, who will be referred to as Monica to protect her identity, participated in art therapy through Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) at Paly. Monica’s experience with art therapy had a positive impact on her mental health, and through art she was able to understand and accept her emotions. “Before [therapy], art had only been a hobby, but now it’s a form of communication,” Monica said.
The visual nature of art helped Monica realize her emotions, and through guided analysis of her work with her therapist, she was able to find new techniques to help better her mental health.
Monica’s art depicted her positive and negative mental condition in the forms of “evil” and “kind” figures; her ACS therapist guided her through analysis of her emotions and taught her to not “feed the negative.” “The actual art wasn’t helpful, but analyzing it really helped me see a new insight about myself,” said Monica.
Regarding therapeutic art, Monica says, “Everything is about you; there’s no lines or certain rules.” Without guidelines to follow, the therapist is able to truly analyze the sentiments behind the art. “There is a deeper meaning to art,” Monica said. “There can be a pretty picture, but what’s the story behind it?”
Monica is just one of many Paly students who use ACS as a resource for various kinds of therapy. “At first I felt ashamed of getting a call slip in class to go meet with a therapist at Paly but after a while I felt proud of getting help,” Monica said. “A lot of people struggle by themselves. Palo Alto knows where that can take people and that’s terrifying.”
Art therapy is about helping someone learn something about themselves and others. It gives them new perspective on an idea or situation. Through art therapy Monica was able to discover a part of her that she didn’t know existed. By talking about her art, she gained a new perspective on the way she saw herself.
Art Therapy is not always accessible or necessary for all people, so mindful art can be a great alternative to relieve stress. The depth of art therapy is much more complex and facilitation requires training and education from art therapy specialists; however, mindful art undoubtedly has a positive benefit on mental and emotional well-being.
Lisa Solomon, a mindful art teacher at the Palo Alto Art Center, as well as other organizations around the bay area, gave us her perspective on how mindful art can positively affect people’s lives. “Being mindful and creating color meditation paintings has helped me loosen up, explore and play,” Solomon said. “They have helped me shift my mood, get ready to concentrate on something, and have had an overall good effect on my art practice and my life.”
In Solomon’s class she spends about an hour working with students to help them color and paint their emotions. The act of being mindful while creating art to express one’s emotions can be as simple as concentrating on the art in front of you. “Being aware of my breathing is helpful. For me, breathing is really the key to meditation, relaxing and being mindful,” Solomon said.
Solomon spends a lot of time at the Palo Alto Art Center getting to know Palo Alto teens. “It’s been interesting to interact with the diversity of the Palo Alto community firsthand. Many already have some experience with art and meditation; some do not at all,” Solomon said.
Along with meditative art, adult coloring books are a great way people can incorporate mindful art into their lives. Art therapist Dr. Jordan Potash, a representative of the American Art Therapy Association, explained, “There are [people] who find choosing images and coloring them in soothing, and that coloring books promote escapism and distraction from the world.”
Coloring books are a great way to release stress and to free up a part of your mind to subconsciously work out problems. However, “there are times when life’s challenges require our attention, not our distraction,” Potash said. “We need to let go of the predetermined lines and shapes and images to free up the lines and shapes and images of our imagination.”
In Palo Alto, where many struggle to understand and nurture mental health, art therapy is the type of treatment students can benefit from. As an outlet to discover and analyze what we do not understand about ourselves, creating art provides an ideal resource for teenagers who struggle with internal difficulties.
Varying degrees of self-understanding and maturity can make it difficult for professionals to treat the breadth of adolescent mental health afflictions. Art can be a method of self-discovery for some and for others it can be a cathartic release of stress and anxiety, and spreading art therapy resources may prove to be healing for the Paly community. So, pick up your Cerulean Blue crayon, book an appointment and scribble away.