Art: our everyday therapy

What is the correct way in which to express your emotions? The answer depends on who you’re asking. Whether by cooking a delicious meal, running until you physically cannot take another step, or sitting in a dimly lit room listening to your favourite music; if it works for you, keep on at it.

Creativity is something that’s in all of us whether we know it or not; there’s no need to be as talented as Da Vinci for art to take form in your life. In fact, you don’t need to have ever picked up a paint brush. Everybody is different, and creativity caters to that, bending and twisting to find the most comfortable way to work for the individual. Music, dance, drama, writing, food and Feng Shui are all forms of art, some more obvious than others, but art all the same.

For me, I draw, paint, and tie rope into knots to make wall hangings and plant pot holders – more affluently known as Macrame – to take me away from screens and everyday stresses. It’s how I relax; I breathe, let my ideas flow and make something to be proud of in the end.

So, as I step foot on the 7am train from The Lake District to Manchester’s Oxford Road to begin my 2-hour commute to university, it’s imperative I adapt my creativity to the surroundings in order to take my mind away from the smell of trains and the sweltering discomfort of being packed like sardines with a group of angry strangers. Some people postpone their healthy eating streak by treating themselves to a croissant, others bop their heads along to music, and I choose to read.

One particular morning I was reading The Happy Newspaper and this is where, in a bright yellow article in the corner of a bright pink page, I learnt a bit about art therapy. Put simply, it’s an expressive form of psychotherapy. According to the British Association of Art Therapists’ website, art therapy shouldn’t be viewed as a recreational activity or an art lesson – although sessions do tend to be enjoyable – but as a form of therapy that utilises artistic materials as a way for sufferers to communicate their worries if they perhaps have trouble doing so verbally.

In our everyday creative outlets – in whatever form they take – are we practicing art therapy without even realising it? From small, everyday inconveniences, to wider issues in society or with oneself, the act of refocusing the mind on a creative process in which we have full control over is the essence of art therapy. I can see the experts shaking their head at this, but as someone who knows the effect switching off and creating has, I wholly believe we need to stop viewing art as just a bit of fun, and instead look to it as a legitimate way in which to target, and treat, mental health issues.

Within the article, I was also introduced to the Creative Living Centre; a centre in Manchester that does just this; focusing on alternative outlets of emotions for those who struggle with their mental health. The centre launched in 1997 off the back of a piece of research that was carried out by Mind which recommended a holistic approach to mental wellbeing. For over 20 years now, the centre has provided a range of creative, therapeutic and social activities to help those who struggle in whichever way best suits them.

The holistic approach aims to treat a person by considering all areas of their wellbeing: the mental, physical, social, emotional, financial and spiritual health needs to successfully tackle mental health issues. While some argue that the holistic approach can cure a mental illness, others claim it simply aids recovery as it refocuses the mind on varying outputs of emotions.

When operational leader, Kate Parsons, picked up the phone she said: “I officially love this newspaper!” Having already had a number of visitors seeking help because of the article alone, it’s plain to see that their approach is one that appeals to all.

Kate said: “I think the holistic approach is particularly successful because it doesn’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. What we are offering is tailored to the individual, so if somebody comes to us and they’re not in a place where they want to do anything more than come to our ear acupuncture meditation session, a relaxing session, then they can do that. Whereas other people will come and thrive; they will engage in everything.”

The classes available range from music and singing drop-in sessions, creative reading and writing, and simpler classes where members can come along to have a chat and do some good old colouring-in. From group therapy sessions to 1:1’s, members are given the time to visually express how they are feeling about their situation.

Kate said: “We had one lady last year who attended a range of courses, one of her favourites being a food and mood class, and she really pushed herself to learn all the techniques for coping. She made a lot of changes and is in a better place for doing so. She doesn’t attend the centre anymore as her work life has changed but she attends similar activities outside the centre to continue, by her own will, to stay strong. I think it’s good when people feel like they don’t need to come to see us anymore, because we know we have helped them as much as we could.”

Art therapy is becoming a popular practice in primary schools, too, as a way to delve into issues such as bullying, family complications and unresolved behavioural problems in students. In an interview with the Huffington Post, art therapy expert, Gretchen Miller, claims that art making is a natural expression for children as they have an imaginative ability that isn’t censored in them yet.

I spoke to Julie Taylor who works at Harbour, an independent charity in the North East that provides help to those affected by domestic abuse, both individuals and their families. Julie sees art as a tool for communication, representing thoughts and feelings that a child may be too young, or afraid, to talk about. She said: “I find that, as a practitioner, art therapy is extremely useful. Particularly for younger people, the families of domestic abuse sufferers, as it’s a softer approach to encouraging young people to talk about their worries.”

Harbour run a 6-week early intervention program for children affected by domestic abuse. Each week a different media is used, and a task is set for the group; the most popular being ‘The Worry Monster’: “The child is asked to draw a monster and decorate it with shiny paper, stars and stickers. Then they are encouraged to tell the worker about the monster i.e their worries. The child would often describe the monster as the figure who frightens them, such as dad because he shouts at mum and makes her cry.”

“After the 6 weeks of therapeutic work with the child we would show the parents their child’s art work and the recorded notes of their interpretations of that work. This often results in shocked reactions from the parents, perhaps they didn’t think their child had heard any of the arguing as the child was asleep, for example. One mum actually broke down in tears. It can be hard-hitting, but if it means we can then focus on helping eliminate those worries completely, it’s worth the struggle.”

In society, we are under the impression that scribbling across a page, colouring, drawing, and messing with paint is child’s play. Yet perhaps if we picked up our crayons from time to time, we would find ourselves developing a much stronger sense of self.

So, the next time youre dreading your morning commute, grab a copy of The Happy Newspaper. You might just discover a little bit of sunshine and some ideas for your next pick-me-up.