Monday, March 14, 2011

"You Can't Go To 'Swan Lake' and Keep Score": The Power of Art Therapy

Living in New York, N.Y., Katherine Dillingham had the wrong job. A recent theatre graduate from Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut, she was working as a personal trainer to help pay her rent. “I was a terrible personal trainer because I would say ‘oh you look blue, or upset, do you just want to talk?’ and a lot of clients didn’t want that.” One of those clients was a psychotherapist who recommended that Dillingham pursue a career as a therapist. She wondered if there was a way to combine her love of acting and therapy. “I thought I was a genius until I realized that there is an entire field dedicated to that idea.”

            That field is art therapy. For nearly 70 years, psychiatrists, therapists, and rehabilitation centers have been using the process of creating art in order to aid and assess their patients. Now, the various therapies are as diverse as the artistic processes themselves, with programs using visual art, music, drama, and dance. Unlike art instruction, art therapy is focused on the process of creating art rather than producing an art work. Through use of color, tone, speech and movement, therapists are able to access cognitive and emotional faculties that traditional “talk therapy” does not reach.

             After spending two years working with patients at a clinic in Queens, New York, Dillingham began work at the Institute for Therapy through the Arts in Evanston, Ill. Founded in 1975, the ITA is a division of the Music Institute of Chicago. By providing one-on-one care at three facilities across Chicago, as well as outsourcing therapists to local hospitals, drug clinics and rehabilitation centers, the ITA serves a wide spectrum of patients. Working with both children and adults respectively, therapists have helped establish the ITA as one of the premier art therapy centers in Chicago.

Walking through the Institute’s Evanston center, colorful glass mosaics and finger paintings line the wall. There are rooms filled with art supplies, a small theatre and a dance studio. The multitude of mediums is really helpful in assisting teens and adults who are struggling with issues ranging from grief to drug addiction and who may be apprehensive to engage in artistic experiments. “If I’m 16, there is no way I’m going to play with markers,” Dillingham said, “but I will listen to the radio which allows me to connect to others through music.”

Dillingham’s parents are both musicians and she recalls her feelings as a young child toward art. “I didn’t grow up in a religious household but when we went to the symphony, or the ballet, or the theatre, there was a reverence there. There was a connection to spirit, and honestly, to healing.” Through her adolescence, art remained a constant source of support which she credits to her success as a drama therapist. Her love for drama comes through in her speech, often taking on the role of a hypothetical patient when describing the impact of her work. Within 10 minutes of speaking to her, it is obvious that she really believes in the power of drama therapy.
Cathy Moon, an associate professor and chair of the art therapy graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been in the field for more than 30 years. In that time she has practiced therapy, held exhibitions, instructed students, and written on the subject of art therapy. For her, art and the art making process are not only a way for the patient to cope, but also a way for the therapist and patient to communicate.

In teaching, Moon recommends that for certain situations, the therapist should create art along with their patient. “We’re often referred people for whom verbal therapy does not work, people who have lost the ability to talk, and since art is a means of communication, it can help the therapist relate with the client.”

One of Moon’s students, April Abesamis, sees the method of co-creation as a way of not only assisting a patient but maintaining her identity as well. “I entered the program embracing my identity as an artist and an advocate to the oppressed. Now, I am realizing how that identity is a crucial part of being an art therapist.”

             The field itself is subjected of skepticism. “Creativity is unquantifiable. You can’t go to “Swan Lake” and keep score. It’s really difficult to measure,” Dillingham said, “but for me that’s one of the reasons it’s effective because the things that go beyond what we can see and categorize are the things where we are trying to effect change.” Moon feels that some of the apprehension and bias toward art therapy are reflections of our societal aversion towards the arts. “Everywhere you go therapy is definitely not accepted readily but you add art onto that and you have kind of a double whammy.”

            To help combat this bias, more research is key. Since there is not definitive, quantifiable data showing the effectiveness of art therapy treatment, insurance companies are often reluctant to approve charges, Dillingham said. While many art therapists disregard the lack of research in favor of assisting patients, a new generation of therapists have gravitated toward researching an analyzing the effects of art therapy. “Research used to be seen as ‘Oh no! We have to take research courses!’” Moon said, “But now we’re actually seeing students being interested in how research plays a role in the field.”

           Regardless of research, it is obvious that art therapy has a significant positive influence on patients with mental illness. Dillingham has had numerous patients who have been through various kinds of treatment which had little to no effect, until creative art therapy. “It’s not magic, but it’s certainly mysterious. To see a change that they didn’t need to vocalize but simply experience.” And in the end, whether it be a song, a role, or a painting, as long as someone is improving, the medium is secondary.

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