As we continue in Mental Health Awareness Month, we turn our focus to art therapy as a resource for helping individuals process emotion and trauma. Art therapy is one of many clinical approaches within our children’s residential center. Research studies are showing that individuals who draw with markers, make collages, or played with clay for 45 minutes experience decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Source: Health). Open creative expression, even in a short period of time, regardless of art experience, can lift your mood. Self expression guided by a trained art and trauma therapist can do even more to benefit mental health.
“It (art therapy) helps us express things that we don’t often have words for but are deeply felt and experienced,” said Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia. “Second, it helps us communicate to others this inner state, and when you communicate, you can build relationships. You are really communicating ‘This is who I am and where I am.”
We asked Leah Mendez, art and trauma therapist in our children’s residential center, to reflect on diverse art mediums and their benefits.
What are favorite art mediums that you or kids really like?
I aim to discover the right media fit for each child. Knowing how media properties elicit certain personality traits, behavioral tendencies, and emotional response is necessary to finding a good match. I love to paint as a means of emotional expression and work with clay due to the grounding and mindfulness qualities that successful clay work demands. Some kids gravitate to other media, including drawing, fabrics, crafts, collage, carving, music, sensory items, games and play-therapy figures.
I try to provide as many media options as possible to establish a psycho/social/emotional baseline, then use their strengths to address therapy goals. At CCHO this is focused on processing past trauma, but art therapy is a versatile tool for many populations and theoretical orientations.
Here are several art projects created by our kids.
What are some unexpected or outside-the-box art mediums that others might try?
I show our youth the potential for creativity in everything. This may mean finding creative solutions to fix something broken, like reattaching the soles of old shoes with rubber cement or teaching kids to sew up the holes in their clothes. Sometimes I’ll encourage the kids to create something they desire with everyday items, such as painting an old box for a dollhouse and making dolls out of clothespins and scrap fabric. This is especially helpful for children who have rigid thought patterns and don’t initially see creative potential or aren’t open to alternative outcomes.
Another medium that is popular in the art therapy research world right now is clay work. Pottery is being studied by neuroscientists to understand the link between wheel throwing and improvement with depression and mood disorders. Although it’s uncertain as to why, working with clay on the wheel has been shown to decrease cortisol levels more than other art mediums, which translates to improved mood and functioning.
Incorporating art and creativity into our daily lives is beneficial. Start with playdough, a coloring book or tearing up old magazines into a collage. The goal is not perfection, but simply doing. Pausing other tasks and noise to interact with the materials. And then observing what you have created. You might be surprised by the process and the outcome.