By Griselda Williams, Manager Mental Wellness Services
For many years, art has been used as a tool to promote healing with various groups of people. Art is used with persons with Alzheimer’s’ disease and other health issues. There are art programs in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. Art has been used in therapy with persons challenged with mental health diagnoses and persons with disabilities. Art is used in other regions of the United States, as well as the world by organizations positively impacting persons traumatized by earthquakes, war, floods, tornadoes and other traumatic events.
According to Gretchen Miller, Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, “Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma without the necessity of or reliance on verbal language to share ones story”. This creative tool “can become a visual voice that can help retrieve content from lower-functioning parts of the brain where traumatic experiences live without words and can transform into drawings on paper, molded into clay, painted onto a canvas and more”. Art experiences “safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts and memories visible when words are insufficient.”
I recently attended the Housing First Partners conference in Los Angeles, California, where persons who had experienced homelessness used art as a tool for healing. Homelessness is considered a traumatic event so it would stand to reason that art would benefit persons with this experience. Men and women that participated in the Skid Row Homeless Support Program in downtown Los Angeles made art items to sell and earn income at the Housing First Partners conference. People who lived homeless experiences were at the conference, share the use of art, poetry and music to tell their stories and some had published their work. These individuals shared their publications and work and how participating in art therapy helped them heal and increase their self-esteem and self-worth. Others shared how being able to make art helped them feel there was something they did well, something they had control over and something that was theirs alone that no one could take from them. One man shared that using poetry to express how he felt inside was a positive way of getting all of the negative and fearful feelings out in a harmless way versus in an angry or self-destructive way.
As part of our program group meetings at Community LINC, I often offer artful experiences with our program participants. Recently, I offered old keys, a painted canvas and other items for a collage. The collage title for each participant was to be called, “The Key To My……” Each participant was asked to fill the blank canvas with pictures, words and symbols reflecting on the title. When the women’s group members finished their collages they shared hopes, dreams, goals, regrets and lessons learned through their collages. They were able to imagine a new life and depict this in their collages which in turn helped them to identify their goals and therefore steps needed to reach the goals.
We often use ‘art as a tool for healing’ experiences in our program groups often. Each time, I hear our residents say how helpful the experience was for increasing their awareness and insight, as well as how it helped them connect to their hopes and dreams. Pictures of some of the finished collages were posted on our Facebook because the group members felt proud of what they produced and they wanted to share them with others.