Art therapy for mental health

Photo courtesy of Kellette Elliott.

Story by Laura Canida

Kellette Elliott was first exposed to art therapy at college in Virginia, but leaned on it heavily when her mom was diagnosed with cancer.

“I would take art students from the college to work with the kids who suffered or witnessed abuse,” said Elliott, an artist and art teacher at Clackamas High School. “We made arts and crafts, spoke with them and bonded with them. To see the power of art and healing was priceless.”

Today, Elliott uses some of that experience to help high school students, and advocates for art to help struggles among college students and working adults as well.

Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that can help people express their feelings through art rather than words, according to the American Art Therapy association.

According to Kristine Bella, an instructor and clinical coordinator for the art therapy program at Lewis & Clark College, art therapy can be used in many ways.

“Whether brief or longer term, art therapy services on college campuses offer a means of responding to the diverse needs of students,” Bella wrote in an email. “Art therapists are able to work with students to address concerns relating to academics, stress, anxiety, confidence, social difficulties or any emotional struggle a student may be experiencing.”

The process offers a safe and confidential outlet through the art making process, Bella said. Individuals do not need to be artists to benefit.

“I am continually impressed with the power of art therapy and how art therapists are able to assist people in finding health and healing through the creative process,” Bella said.

Elliott said she uses art therapy not just in her classrooms.

“This past summer, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer,” she said. “Art was a regular practice in my life, but I knew I had to continue this practice to cope with my mom’s decline in health. Each day, I created art, and shared the art with her over text message. She loved it! I made pieces about her and our relationship. She said she looked forward to it each day. As my mom went into hospice and her days were numbered, I saw how my art was changing. It was more explosive, darker, but that’s how I was coping with her sickness.”

“That’s how I was able to cope with all of the emotions,” Elliott said. “I share my work each day on my Instagram, so my friends and family could see how I was coping her with her death. Friends shared how they saw the change in my subject matter when I didn’t realize it was happening while creating it. Art was and is my escape.”

Oregon House Bill 2434, which provides art therapy licensing and title protection for credentialed professionals, was signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in May 2017.

For a directory of art therapists in private practice in Oregon, and for current art therapy groups, lectures, workshops and conferences in the area, go to nwarttherapy.com.

Lewis & Clark College adopted an art therapy program that was previously housed at Marylhurst University, which closed last year. The master’s degree program in art therapy is the only one of its kind in Oregon, and one of only 34 approved programs in the country.

Mary Andrus, the Art Therapy Assistant Professor and Program Director at Lewis and Clark College said “I helped spearhead the Art Therapy Law, which protects the ethical practice of art therapy in the state. I am committed to impacting social change by ensuring art therapy services are a mainstay in Oregon to help meet the mental health needs of marginalized and underserved populations.”

If art therapy sounds like a career you would be interested in, check out the Master of Arts degree at Lewis & Clark College. Students still have time to apply for fall 2019.

Art therapy is not currently offered at CCC, but according to counselor/academic adviser Ignacio Gonzales-Reyes, the counseling department offers services to students who present mental health or behavioral challenges.

Gonzales-Reyes said, “Art Therapy is a well- known form of therapy and clients who engage in this type of service report very positive results. We provide some services on-site as well as offer referrals to our partners in the community at large. Each student is assessed individually to figure out what their needs may be, and services are offered accordingly. If a student specifically requests art therapy services, we are likely to refer them to a community partner.”

Elliott said, “I am hoping that many college students take a break from the stresses of school to create art as a coping mechanism.” If you want to doodle, not necessarily create a master painting, she recommends Zentangling to her students who are stressed and overwhelmed. The Zentangle Method is an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns. The invention of the Zentangle was intended to make the act of drawing pleasurable, meditative and accessible to all.

Students who feel overwhelmed or pressured could try some form of art therapy. Creating art gives a chance to slow down and explore issues.

Working with a licensed therapist has its advantages because a professional can tailor each activity to individual needs. However, to receive benefits from art, students don’t necessarily need to see a therapist.

There are many simple activities such as sketching, making collages, art journaling, painting, or sculpting with clay. What matters is feeling comfortable and enjoying it.