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Where’s the proof art therapy works? Isn’t it just drawing pictures?

Written by Debra Coulson.

Those of us who have trained, or are training in the transpersonal therapy fields know that the approach works on a profoundly deep level. But how can we communicate this to those who need more concrete facts before taking a chance to try therapy or even take us on for a placement? In other words, where’s the evidence?

Finding solid, indisputable evidence for the transpersonal approach is difficult because of its very nature. If we pin it down enough to find scientific evidence we’ve likely destroyed that which is transpersonal in the first place. No need to despair though because there is an increasing body of evidence to support art and expressive therapies to which you can refer when challenged by those needing ‘the facts’.

Imagination and the process of creation can be profoundly transformative. Art and creative therapies offer pathways to self-awareness and healing that go beyond verbal communication and have been found to have a positive, healing effect in areas such as anxiety, depression and other emotional distress, physical stress symptoms, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, loss of self esteem and confidence, social isolation, fear of starting new relationships, living in fear, and other major impacts on quality of life issues. Creative therapies have been found to positively contribute to such emotional and behavioural issues and offer women and children a way to address core issues and explore healing processes without being re-traumatised by the need to retell their story.

There is evidence that expressive arts contribute to personal growth, self-empowerment and a positively perceived life situation (Rogers, 1993; Wikström, 2000). Art therapy has been found to promote positive mental health and offer a safe space for the development of self-esteem and empowerment (Heenan, 2006).

Imagery and art enhance active involvement in healing processes, encourage linkages between mind, body and emotions, offer a way to bring order out of chaos, provide pathways for the articulation of complex and multilayered feelings and help clients become unstuck and take action (Pearson, 2008).

Experiments in neuroscience have recently identified links between art, imagery and emotional and cognitive (mental) functional integration. Purposeful art making, such as that engaged with in expressive / art therapy, has been shown to encourage expression, understanding and integration of emotional reactions (Hass Cohen, 2008).

Bilateral art, where art making is combined with talking such as with art therapy, has been linked to right and left hemispheric brain integration in psychotherapeutic settings (McNamee, 2003).

Does art therapy work with children?

Children respond quickly to art therapy and creative, therapeutic play. Creating pictures can help them express emotions they are as yet unable to verbalise, name or identify and can be a safe way for them to share their story. Art and play have been found to be essential in supporting traumatised children through the processes of debriefing, resolution and recovery (Malchiodi, 2001).

Australian researchers found a 71% increase in the effectiveness of positive emotional and behavioural outcomes amongst primary and secondary school students exposed to expressive therapy methods compared with the counselling methods used prior to school guidance counselors being trained in Expressive Therapy techniques.

Documented improvements included increased self-esteem and self-acceptance, reduced aggression, defensiveness and depression, emotional wellbeing, calmness, improved control of feelings and improved relationships with staff and other students (Pearson, 2003). These benefits of expressive therapy may be transferrable to children exposed to domestic violence, the effects of which include emotional and behavioural problems, lost school time and poor school performance, adjustment problems, reduced social competence, bullying, excessive cruelty to animals, running away from home, and relationship problems (Laing and Bobic, 2002). So, yes, art therapy does work with children.

What about meditation, isn’t it just New Age rubbish?

Meditation, particularly mindfulness, is widely used throughout the world, not just for spiritual practice, but to support personal growth, insight and healing. A review of research related to the integration of meditation into higher education (Shapiro, Brown and Astin, 2008) identified that meditation has been found to contribute positively to cognitive and academic performance, mental health and psychological wellbeing and the development of the whole person.

Mindfulness-based meditation in particular, has been found to contribute to “qualities that produce well-rounded persons, reflected in higher creativity and greater capacities for positive interpersonal behavior and healthy social relationships” (p.24). The development of meditative awareness supports a “view from the mountain top [that] broadens perspectives and [helps meditators] see things in new ways and with greater clarity” (p.30).

Mindfulness meditation has the potential to improve people’s ability to process information quickly and accurately, to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, support development of creativity, empathy and interpersonal relationship skills and may support development of self-compassion. (p.3).

Debra Coulson is a transpersonal art therapist, counsellor and social ecologist with deep experience working with complex trauma. Debra was funded through the community-based supports to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to work with women who were sexually abused as children at The Women’s Cottage in the Hawkesbury. After three years offering intensive counselling, workshops, creative encounters and retreats, Debra moved to a role where she is able to contribute to early intervention and prevention of abuse and trauma. Debra is now Senior Manager of the Southern Region of YWCA NSW, based in Nowra. Part of the largest women’s organisation in the world, YWCA NSW is dedicated to contributing to gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Debra’s team provide innovative supports to women escaping domestic violence and a wide range of empowerment and respectful relationship programs for young women and men, boys and girls in the district. Debra’s transpersonal approach is providing new dimensions to the great work of the YWCA.

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