While Art has always been considered a means of self-expression and communication, the establishment of Art Therapy as a therapeutic approach to mental health has been a relatively recent find.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today let’s understand Art Therapy and how it can promote mental well-being as we talk to Alexis Decosimo, a registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in Public Health. She focuses on empowering individuals and helping them heal through artistic expression and self-discovery.
Alexis- Thank you, Valerie. It’s so good to be here.
Valerie- Thank you for taking out time to talk to us today about Art Therapy. Let’s try to get a very basic understanding of how art relates to mental health.
Alexis- Absolutely. Let me explain it this way- We live in a multi-dimensional world. We live through senses and relationships, sights and smells, and what I noticed about myself is what when I’m only talking, I only can access just a little bit of that storyline. So what art does is it breaks through some of those barriers of words and allows you to express yourself through all the different senses that you experience throughout your day to day. I can go into more detail from the mental health standpoint as well, if you’d like me to.
Alexis- So we have our analytical brain and then we have our creative brain. An an Art Therapist, when I’m working with clients, by using art I’m able to integrate both the analytical and the creative brain, allowing a client to explore past the boundary of words to really explore through creativity and thoughts and feelings and memories, and do it in a way that feels safe and fun and creative. That really allows someone to see their memories and their feelings in a holistic way.
Valerie- Alright, so you did tell us what Art Therapy is but how does it compare to conventional Psychotherapy?
Alexis- Conventional psychotherapy uses words as the medium through open-ended questions and story-telling and really relies on that analytical brain, a lot of the time. What art does is it allows somebody to engage through their creative brain. I think the best way is to give you an example- In typical psychotherapy, when you’re working with someone, you might ask them “Tell me about your strengths”. A person might give you a list and maybe some examples.
What an Art Therapist would do is say “Explore your strengths through imagery”, “Tell me what it would be like if you were a superhero”, “How would you go throughout your day and be able to use the superhero strengths to engage with the world around you?”. Then that person actually creates imagery of their idea of their strengths in a way that is fun and exploratory as well as a little bit magical but it goes beyond our conventional day to day life and it really allows someone to sink into that perspective of what strength and resiliency is and that person then gets the time to create those images and create those ideas, and then they’re able to use their analytical thinking brain to go back and explain their ideas. So it’s this holistic approach that connects both sides of our thinking brain.
Valerie- So what’s a simple way to get started? Is it possible for us to do it if we’re not artistic as people? Because I am someone who considers herself to not have any artistic ability so what’s a simple way for us to get started?
Alexis- I always laugh when someone says this. Clients come in and say “I want to do Art Therapy but I’m not an artist” and I always say “You can’t tell an Art Therapist that you’re not an artist”. If you have the ability to move your body, you are an artist. One of my favourite artists is actually blind and he creates all of his paintings through his senses and his memory of colours and what the world looked like before he became blind. There are people who aren’t able to use their arms and legs and they use their mouth to paint. So it’s not so much about this conventional idea about what art is, it’s more about being able to express yourself.
I think it’s important to make the distinction between Art Therapy and art for mental health. Art Therapy is a mental health profession facilitated by a trainer or therapist. Unfortunately, even in the United States, Art Therapists are few and far between and a lot of the time, require financial means to be able to pay for sessions and so when you asked the question of how we can use Art therapy in our everyday life, putting aside the diagnosis, psychoanalysis and ideas of when we really look into mental health, and we look at it more as how to integrate art into our lives because art, in and of itself, is healing. It gives us the space to shut down the stimulus of the world and whatever we have to engage in, in our daily lives, and just gives us a moment to reflect and be creative. That’s really one of the most important reasons when we think of how to integrate art for our own wellbeing.
You have mentioned that you’re not an artist although I believe everyone is an artist but I do understand that looking at a white piece of paper can be really intimidating and so colouring books are a really good start for a lot of people. I will say that they do term themselves as Art Therapy itself but it is not Art Therapy because it is not facilitated by a mental health Art Therapist but it’s really soothing and it can be really meditative so it can just be a really good place for you to go to where you don’t have to think about what you have to create but you can have some colours next to you and just shut down the rest of the world and engage in just the act of colouring and creating.
I will say that art itself creates a bilateral stimulation in your brain, which actually helps you to relax and to let go of your day and so even colouring, with your eyes moving back and forth and your hands moving back and forth itself, can be a really huge thing but there are so many other things in coloring books so that is a great start for people who are really hesitant but there is knitting, I’m a huge fan of taking classes because it helps you learn a couple of skills so then you can go past that and create your own expression. There is a lot on YouTube about painting and about clay and knitting and so that’s a really good way to start as well.
Valerie- Right. In your opinion, when should people try seeking Art Therapy? If you’re going to psychotherapy, of course this is something that complements psychotherapy but how do you draw the difference?
Alexis- Well, I think the first piece is to know if there are Art Therapists available. I know in India there are some Art Therapists and it depends in different parts of the world. That’s where I struggle the most. Art therapy is still a relatively small field and it would probably be different for different people but if you’re in psychotherapy and you find that you have a bunch of walls that you can’t seem to get past and you can feel it and sense it and you can maybe see what you’re trying to get to but you can’t get words to it, that would be a great time to try and find an Art Therapist to see if they can help facilitate breaking past those walls or putting those sensations into words.
The cool thing about Art Therapists is that we are trained as mental health clinicians so we are trained in the traditional psychotherapies and behavioral therapies. We have this extra skill that in learning all this, we’ve also learnt it through visual art and how to facilitate it through art. Some people have an art therapist as an additional therapist to help them and in a lot of cases, even in my private practice, I am a person’s primary therapist because I’m trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) so we can do EMDR but we can also have that additional art piece to it.
Valerie- Right. So let me ask you, you just said that even Art Therapists are trained in the traditional form of therapy. What got you interested in the alternative form of therapy through art?
Alexis- As a kid I was always really artistic and I really had two passions- it was art and it was also engaging with people. One of my challenges as a kid was that I had a speech impediment and so I had a hard time communicating with other people and so I learnt that art was a really good way for me to express myself. I felt very confined with words. I should say that some people are very artistic with their words, with singing and poems and so words can definitely be used artistically as well but for me, I had a hard time communicating and so art was this way for me to break past that. When I was in high school, I was told about Art Therapy and after that I knew what I wanted to do! So I looked it up and I realised it was accessible to be and from then on, I knew I was going to do that.
I will say something that I can is important is that Art therapy was accessible to me, to be able to go study. I think there are over thirty five schools in the United States so I knew it would be accessible but after graduating as an Art Therapist, I immediately went to my doctorate in Public Health because what I realised in my global work was that universities and schools of Art Therapy are still pretty inaccessible outside of some key countries and so my career build is really to look at the skills and knowledge of Art Therapy but beyond the therapy word. So really looking at it as how can individuals who aren’t Art Therapists or don’t have access to Art Therapists, access some of the key pieces of art, as you’re asking right now. This is how you can access art for well-being and for that positive aspect in our loves.
Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you found a place where you could combine two passions- engaging with people, and art, and actually do that for a living and do that every day of your life.
Alexis- It’s pretty amazing! It’s sometimes hard to explain because it almost feels magical sometimes, I guess that’s really the greatest word for it. I’ve had some clients recently where I give them an art activity like the superhero or creating space for your anxiety outside of your body, where it’s just a suggestion that I give but I don’t know where it’s going to go and all of a sudden the next week, the client comes back saying they feel so much better because they can visualize what they’ve been feeling or a place to put their anxiety outside of their body so that they don’t have to carry it. And we both just sit there stunned saying “That really worked!”. That really did something. Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing thing.
Valerie- Yeah, it is. So, what I wanted to ask you is that when you have the pandemic currently with everyone with isolated and a lot of people now dealing with a lot of mental health issues, also in general for you, working as a mental health counselor you listen to people in distress and you help them cope and that’s probably a constant part of your life. Personally, how do you take care of your mental health? Does Art Therapy play a therapeutic role in your life?
Alexis- Those are great questions. I would say that mental health clinicians now are definitely frontline staff. We end up being the safe place for a lot of people to put their worries and fears so that they can move a little bit lighter throughout this pandemic and feeling a little bit more safe and secure and so then we as mental health clinicians have the responsibility of carrying that and to me, it is such an honour to carry those things but as a human being, it is also very difficult. I am no stranger to trauma, one of my specialities is humanitarian crises and then additionally to that speciality, I worked during the Ebola epidemic and so viruses are also not a stranger to me. So it’s also quite interesting moving through this Pandemic because all of a sudden, it’s personal. In the humanitarian crises and Ebola, it wasn’t so much personal. I knew my family was safe and I knew I had a place to go home to where I could decompress before starting again and then all of a sudden, this Pandemic is everywhere and you can’t hide from it. So it’s a whole different kind of stressor.
I had a pottery wheel in my Art Therapy studio that I had bought for my clients and they loved it and I loved being able to facilitate that with them and I’m only working telework right now because of the virus so I actually brought the pottery wheel home and I have it in a wooden shed out in my yard and I go to that pottery wheel almost every single day. It has been such a lifeline for me because I’m not in a place where I want to visually express my stressors right now, it’s better for me to feel like I can hold them and so for pottery, it’s something I don’t have to think about, analyse or dive too deep into but it’s soothing and I think that’s a really important thing about art- that it can be soothing and it doesn’t always have to be analytical or deep. It can sometimes just be soothing and enjoyable and a place to turn off the brain for a moment. So that has been my way of coping. That and just getting outside has been a huge thing for me.
Valerie- That’s nice. It’s really nice that something that you do for a living also helps you calm down because you deal with so much stress when it comes to dealing with people and carrying that with you. It’s good that art is also a way for you to tune it all out and also just be there with yourself.
Alexis- Absolutely and I would also say that I have my own therapist that I see weekly right now. I sometimes look at her thinking that I know I’m giving her my stressors as other people give me theirs so it’s almost like a pass-off to some degree but I think it’s important to acknowledge that as a mental health clinician, it is almost as important for eating and sleeping as it is for acknowledging that it is a basic need right now to have that safe person to pass off some of your stressors and I think that is so important.
Valerie- That is so true. It is so important for us to just have people to talk to with so much going on and it’s great that you have that for yourself as well.
Alexis- Yeah, it’s been really wonderful.
Valerie- So Alexis thank you so much for taking out the time and talking to us and actually giving us an introduction to what Art Therapy is and how it works. We learnt from you that it’s one way to break through the barriers and when you can’t express yourself through words, there are other means for you to seek help and just calm yourself down and find peace. Thank you so much for being here and introducing us to this.
Alexis- Yeah absolutely, thank you Valerie. Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the work you guys do.
Valerie- Thank you.