LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: An Introduction ft. Beth Donahue

In recent times, various forms complementary and alternative therapies have been adopted by people going through mental health issues, owing to therapeutic benefits. Let’s introduce ourselves to alternative therapy and learn how it can aid mental health.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we have Elizabeth Donahue, Associate Chair of the Art Therapy Program at Antioch University, Seattle. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist. She enjoys working with her clients to find their voice through artistic expression.

Welcome, Beth.

Beth- Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today. 

Beth- Oh, I’m happy to be here.

Valerie- Let’s start with you telling us what Alternative Therapy for mental health is and how it compares to conventional psychotherapy.

Beth- Yeah, so I think many people are familiar with how conventional psychotherapy works. You go to see your therapist and you sit in your office and you talk with them and they listen and maybe they would give you some feedback or some advice. And that works really well for a lot of people but other people maybe don’t have the words to express their emotions, or maybe the things that they need to talk about are a little too hard to talk about, maybe too traumatic. So that’s where alternative therapies can come into play. Art Therapy, Drama Therapy, Clay Therapy, Music Therapy- these are all ways for people to rest their thoughts and emotions through different media rather than through just talking.

Valerie- Right. You said that you can express yourself through different media apart from just talking. Is that the only reason that one would consider Alternative Therapy or could there be other reasons as well?

Beth- There could be other reasons! Some people might find that they enjoy creative expression, that the simple act of art making or music making is therapeutic in itself. They might find that being guided through their creative activities by an art therapist or a music therapist might be beneficial. 

Valerie- Okay. Like you just told us, there are various forms of alternative therapy for mental health. There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and a lot more. How would we know which form would help us best express ourselves? 

Beth- I think one option might be to consider which one you enjoy engaging in media. If you are a person that likes to draw or paint, then Art Therapy might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy using your body and movements to express yourself, something like Dance Movement Therapy or Drama Therapy might be more appropriate for you. I think the best way to choose is based on what you’re already interested in.

Valerie- Right. So I consider myself to be somebody who does not draw, who does not dance, who does not sing very well either. So taking all of this into consideration and if you want to try out Alternative Therapy, is it necessary for you to have an inclination towards one of these specific things or can you try it out regardless?

Beth- Such a good question! Yeah, of course. The job of an art therapist or a drama therapist, the alternative therapist, is to help you express yourself through these different mediums and they can assist you. Say maybe you want to express yourself through dance but you’re not a dancer. You’ve never taken a dance class and you don’t know anything about it. Their job is to help you obtain the skills that you need to express yourself. They might show you a couple of dance moves or a few poses, to help you express yourself. It’s the same with art or drama therapy. 

For example, to be an Art Therapist, you must be a trained artist yourself. So you know how to use the different art supplies that might be present and you can teach the person who’s with you, your client, to use those supplies as well. So you don’t need to do anything! The other cool thing is that art therapy or music therapy, these aren’t about creating fine works of art that might hang in a museum. Their purpose is the journey itself so the creation of the artwork is what’s important and not really the end result. You don’t have to worry about not making something that looks beautiful, you just worry about making something that expresses yourself. 

Valerie- Right. I love that you said that the purpose is the journey. It’s not about what you create or the quality of the stuff that you’re doing but it’s about the process of doing it.

Beth- Yes, exactly. That’s totally true.

Valerie- So you are a registered mental health counselor. You chose to take an alternative form of therapy and work as an Art Therapist. What made you make this decision? 

Beth- Well, there are a couple of reasons that I decided to be both, a mental health counselor and an Art Therapist. One of them is that I want to be able to support my clients in whatever way they want to express themselves and so sometimes that means through art, and sometimes that means they do just want to just talk, and I want to be able to support them in doing both things. The other thing is that there’s a little bit of a technical issue in the United States. In most places, you can’t be licensed as an Art Therapist, you need to also be licensed as a mental health counsellor in order to work with people. So I thought it’s a good idea to have that background as well in case I want to work in various settings. So really, I wanted to make sure that I was able to support and help the largest number of people and I didn’t want to limit myself to only doing alternative therapy. I wanted to be able to do both.

Valerie- That’s beautiful, that you wanted to help as many people as you could and also take the interest that you have in art and use that to help people.

Beth- Well, thank you! Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been wonderful.

Valerie- Could you give us an insight into what happens in an Art Therapy session?

Beth- Sure! A number of different things might happen. A person might come into my art therapy room and just sit down at the desk and just pick up some supplies and start expressing themselves that way, right away. Sometimes I am just a compassionate witness to the art-making and we don’t really talk at all. They make art and they find that therapeutic and maybe we’ll talk a little bit at the end of the session. Another way though can be that a person comes down in my office and they sit down and they’re really struggling to tell me about something. They really feel like there’s something they want me to know but they don’t have the right words and they’re kind of frustrated that way. And so I might ask them to pick a colour and draw whatever shape comes to mind first. Then we start there with something really simple, and then we might move on to a far more detailed picture that helps us both understand that they’re trying to say. Is that helpful?

Valerie- Yes but this actually made me think of another thing- the tasks that you’re talking about like trying to ask them to draw a shape, it’s all so abstract that I don’t understand how you can actually make sense of stuff like that and help people. How do you do that? Or is that something you’ve been trained to understand?

Beth- That’s a really good question! So no, say I ask somebody to pick a colour and draw a shape. They picked green and they drew a square. I’m not going to know what that means just by looking at it but what I would do is ask the person who drew it to explain it to me. I might say- Well, I noticed you chose a bright colour of green. Can you tell me what this reminds you of? When you look at this colour of green, what else do you think about? And then I might ask- I notice you drew this shape. What does this shape remind you of? What do you think of when you use this shape? When’s the first time you saw that shape? – And so by association, the client starts to explain why they chose the colour and shape and then we might get to something deeper, something more about the issue that they want to talk about. One thing people think art therapists might do is find meaning in other people’s artwork and be able to read their minds by looking at the art but we don’t do that at all. We ask the clients questions.

Valerie- So it’s really digging deep into what and why your client has chosen something and trying to understand it from their perspective, taking into account what they’ve drawn or what they’ve chosen to draw.

Beth- Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Valerie- That’s interesting. So in your life, you are an Art Therapist to all of your clients but when you feel low or when you need help, is art something you turn to as well?

Beth- It is something that I turn to as well. I find art-making to be really soothing. I do two kinds of art- I do textile work, which is about repetitive motion, so embroidery or cross-stitch, something that is really concrete and takes a lot of the same motion over and over, and I find that doing that kind of activity can be really relaxing. In the other kind, I don’t need to relax, I actually need to get energy out and so I draw on really big canvases and make really big artwork so that I’m moving my limbs a lot to express myself and that helps me release some emotion, when I need to do that. 

Valerie- Right. So is a lot of Alternative Therapy engaging in repetitive motions that can try to calm and soothe you? 

Beth- It is for some people. That’s a thing that works for me. For other people, it can be more about engaging with the materials itself. I’m thinking about a little girl that I worked with years ago- she liked to work with clay and she really liked to just grab the clay and squish it between her fingers and have that experience of just feeling the clay, and that’s how she releases tension. She just really squished that clay, tore it to pieces and then she felt relieved from that, she felt better. 

Valerie- Right. Another question I want to ask you is that you’ve introduced us to Alternative Therapy, what it is, when one should consider using Alternative Therapy but can it replace conventional psychotherapy or does it work as something that complements it?

Beth- I think it depends on the client. Yes, it can absolutely be the only therapy that people are using, it can replace conventional psychotherapy for a lot of people. For some other people, maybe depending on the diagnosis, they might need both kinds. They might need both talk therapy and an alternative therapy to support that.

Valerie- So when we talk about Alternative Therapy, we have music, art, dance, drama, there’s so much. Is it something that somebody can try at home or is that different from actual alternative therapy?

Beth- You have so many good questions! Yes, absolutely. People can engage in alternative therapies at home. They can engage in art-making, dance, music, clay therapy, they can do all of this at home and they are therapeutic. But what makes it Art Therapy or Drama Therapy is having a trained alternative therapist, somebody trained with you in the room, because that is what takes it to the next level and makes it a therapy rather than just therapeutic. Am I making sense?

Valerie- Yup. That makes sense. Another question I wanted to ask you is that with the Pandemic and so much going on, I’m sure you must have a lot more clients coming to you because there’ just so much going on in the World that’s making everyone so uncomfortable. At the end of it all, I’m sure you must be going through a lot of long days right now but how do you unwind? How do you take care of your own mental health to make sure that you’re not burning out and you can still help the clients that come to you?

Beth- That’s a lovely question. Well, the first thing is that I see an Art Therapist myself. I have an Art Therapist that I see and work with and I think it’s really important for all therapists, counsellors, healers to have their own person that they can talk to and make art with, if that’s how they express themselves. So that’s one way. Another thing that I do is try to engage in activities that are totally different from art therapy. So I’ve really gotten into cooking in the last six months or so. I was a person who ordered takeout a lot but now I have cooked things from scratch in my own home and it’s good! It’s a soothing activity and then I have nourishment at the end, I have something to eat. 

Valerie- Right. Well, Beth thank you so much for talking to us today about Alternative Therapy because it’s something that we’re going to try to explore now with every episode that we have and we’re going to try to get in-depth into the therapies that we discussed today. Thank you so much for actually coming here and spreading light about Alternative Therapy and how it can be used. Also, a very nice thing I liked that you said at the end was that you have your own therapist as well. We always need someone to talk to and share our burden with and I think that was an absolutely beautiful note to end this on. Thank you so much for coming today.

Beth- Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing the rest of the episodes in the podcast.
Valerie- Sure, thank you.

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