Meaning in the making: art as therapy

Painting pictures, sketching figures, acting out scenes, and writing stories are activities more often associated with recreation rather than therapy. Yet creative arts therapy (CAT), a relatively new player in the therapeutic world, uses these very tools. CAT attempts to open up patients’ inner worlds by giving them a chance to uncover and rediscover themselves through creative means.

Skepticism has been directed toward CATs as a form of projective psychotherapy – a technique that aims at delving into a person’s subconscious thoughts and feelings. Since CATs utilize imaginative methods to reach into the unconscious, they have too often been seen as a rehashing of Freudian psychoanalytic interpretive methods.

According to both Linsday Chipman, a drama therapist at the Montreal General Hospital, and Lucy Lu, a counselor at Dorval’s Friends for Mental Health and a trained Art Therapist, CATs are surrounded by many myths, like the one above, which interfere with the acceptance of this type of therapy in conventional medical settings.

The myth that creative art therapists decipher patients’ work based on a standard rule of interpretation, à la Freudian psychoanalysis, is one of the greatest obstacles to the acceptance of CATs into the traditional therapeutic system.

For Lu, the notion of therapist-led interpretation is misleading. Creative art therapists are careful to incorporate individual context into a patient-therapist dialogue.

“Art therapy is not so reductionist; rather, it is a process of meaning-making where images are personally meaningful,” said Lu.

Creative arts therapies do not only rely on the interpretation of drawings based on a standard book of Freudian symbols. Instead, CATs are able to focus on greater unconscious drives, more easily accessing people’s areas of discomfort.

Lu insisted that western-style talk therapy cannot adequately deal with certain groups, such as cultures that are less comfortable with talking about their feelings or patients out of touch with their feelings.

A second myth is the idea that CATs are nothing more than dainty art projects directed primarily at children.

“Drama Therapy is not all about screaming and moving around and being all flaky,” Chipman explained. “It’s very structured. Things aren’t done haphazardly; there is a lot done on methodology.”

Not limited to children alone, CATs work with a wide spectrum of patients, from high schoolers exhibiting problems with violence, to victims of sexual abuse, adolescents with eating disorders, cancer patients, depressed and anxious individuals, and people with mental illness.

The last, and perhaps most harmful, myth surrounding creative arts therapies is that they are not as effective as conventional therapies.

Lu asserted that research has confirmed the benefits of CATs, citing that art therapy has been proven to stimulate visual processing, decreasing flashbacks, trauma, and inciting transformation in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients.

CATs offer a “best fit” method, enabling patients to get close to or distance themselves from issues that may be too painful to approach. Further, patients often unearth previously overlooked issues.

“A lot of depression and anxiety comes from not having any creativity or spontaneity in your life,” said Chipman.

Aside from these three central myths that challenge art therapy, creative arts therapists face a range of issues, including making their profession and required training known, and attempting to fit into the traditional medical model. Yet despite these challenges, Chipman insisted that creativity is a vital part of our living experiences, and that therapy should offer a safe space for rehearsal.

“We spend our everyday life outside of therapy acting, playing roles,” said Chipman. “We are constantly actors. Therapy is supposed to be a mini-representation of everything we do outside of therapy, so why would you take the creativity out of it?”