Art therapy applies creativity to mental health

Last January 2014, art therapist Deb Brass proposed a new project to her students at Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, N.Y.: develop artwork based on superheroes and supervillains. The stories that emerged became a window into the children’s lives.

One student wanted to have the ability to fly, "so they can fly back to the country where they’re from and bring their family back to the U.S.," Brass said. Others similarly used the "superpower" metaphor to explore their strengths and weaknesses, as well as obstacles in their lives.

Brass, an art therapist with the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services, teaches at the school through a New York City Department of Youth and Community Development grant that allocates services to neighborhoods where a large percentage of families fall below the poverty line. In her dual role as clinician and art therapist, she acts both as a counselor to the children and their families -- who are dealing with a variety of stresses, from domestic violence to gang influence to academic pressure -- and as an art instructor trying to channel the students’ energy into a creative outlet.

"We often work in metaphor," Brass said, particularly when working with adolescents who may not feel comfortable talking about themselves. "So you start to see narratives develop within their artwork."

Art therapy, a relatively new field that combines psychotherapy and art instruction, has a wide range of mental health applications, from reducing stress to enabling self-expression to marriage counseling, said Jordan Potash, chair of the American Art Therapy Association’s ethics committee. He said one challenge art therapists face is that their profession is sometimes misunderstood and not afforded the recognition it deserves as a clinical profession.

"An art therapist is equally trained in [the] psychotherapy process and the creative process," said Potash, an art therapy professor at George Washington University.

Until recently, art therapists who choose to secure a license in order to practice have sought licensure as counselors and family therapists, Potash said, but a nationwide movement is underway to establish an independent license for art therapy. This is good news for both art therapists and consumers, he said.

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A version of this story appeared in the September 11-24, 2015 print issue under the headline: Art therapy applies creativity to mental health .

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