As a salute to Mental Health Week, I thought it would be interesting to give you a brief history of art therapy, and why it’s so important for mental well-being.
Perhaps it’s because I’m the first art psychotherapist on the west coast that people often assume that art psychotherapy is a new concept. In fact, expressive therapies have been around since ancient times. Historically, village elders would engage with community members in patterned repetitions of song and dance, re-telling stories with both organic materials and words to promote healing after traumatic experiences. Similar traditions grew from cultures all over the globe at a time when there was no internet, no phone service, and no way for one group to imitate the others. These rituals weren’t just entertainment or a distraction from day to day life; people were just too concerned with basic survival to have time for these things. Generation after generation honed the techniques used because they worked. Similar rituals are practiced in aboriginal groups today. People felt better after these rituals. People functioned better. Interestingly enough, in today’s high tech age, we now know that these rhythmic, repetitive practices can actually alter an individual’s neural network, calming stress responses to an unpredictable environment.
The “psychotherapy” part is a more recent addition, originating from just over a century ago. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, mental illness was considered a “kiss of death” diagnosis. Mental health professionals at the time could do little more than try to keep patients contained, locked up and away from the rest of the population. Many patients could not easily communicate on a verbal level. The first “art psychotherapy” clients took initiative on their own, taking burnt sticks from fireplaces and toilet tissue or examination room paper on which to draw. Psychiatrists were surprised to note that these patients seemed calmer and more focused after art making. It soon became clear that the patients’ artworks served as valuable diagnostic and assessment tools. Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon were French psychologists who were the first to link specific drawing patterns to specific patterns of thought as well as specific disorders. With the advent of Sigmund Freud’s work, the purpose of art therapy in mental institutions was expanded. Patients needed to communicate to process thoughts, feelings and experiences. Doctors soon realized that their artworks revealed unconscious tensions for which they did not have the words to express. This was important for art therapy, but also an important initial step towards a better understanding of mental health as a whole.
It’s wonderful that there is a renewed interest in art making for therapeutic healing. However, many people still think of the “healing arts” as limited to “arts and crafts”. This is at a time when mental health services can’t keep up with the demand from people with mental health concerns. There is also a shortage of after-hospital care as well as prevention programs to improve coping skills and stress management techniques. We need to find alternative methods to help people in need back on the path to health and well being. Art psychotherapy is one such alternative. This hands-on intervention is an internationally recognized form of psychotherapy. In Canada, art therapy is regulated and has its own association, ethics and standards of practice. It has its own masters-level specialty education and supervised training. Around the globe and throughout time, it is a preferred therapy for children, teens, those that have experienced trauma, or anyone finding it difficult to express in words.
With the specialty training that I have received as well as the wisdom of the ancestors and the knowledge of the early psychotherapists, I am honoured to be establishing myself as part of a more holistic mental health framework on the west coast.