A Picture Paints a Thousand Words: The Benefits of Arts Therapies for Teen Mental Health

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In the exigent times of teenhood, many face challenges that they may find difficult to identify, understand, and even more so convey. Mental health conditions may pre-exist among teenagers, while academic, societal, and peer pressure make matters worse. The stigma around mental health further prevents many teens from speaking out about what they are going through.

But what about creative therapies, those that don’t just use talking as a means to communicate feelings?

What Are Arts Therapies?

Arts therapies are established forms of psychological therapy that use the arts – including music, dance, art or drama – in a therapeutic environment with a trained therapist. As a way of enabling people to understand and communicate difficult feelings in a safe space, arts therapies can be used as a tool for a range of challenges. These include emotional, behavioural or mental health problems, physical illnesses, life-limiting conditions, learning disabilities or neurological conditions.

Often referred to as creative therapies, arts therapies can be done individually or as part of group work, depending on the need for care.

Art Therapy

Art therapy or art psychotherapy uses art media as a primary mode of expression. Paints, clay, paper, crayons, pencils, or collage materials are some art materials used. Expressions through art therapy can communicate emotion, underlying issues and feelings while providing insights into internal conflicts that may be present.

A person does not need any previous experience or artistic skill to benefit from art therapy. Instead, it can be used by anyone of any cultural background, age, and level of experience with art. Openness and willingness to express oneself are beneficial to the therapeutic practice, but arts therapies can reveal and relay information even when a teen may not feel able to open up about what is going on inside.

Art therapy refers to a process by which a person can explore aspects of themselves, their patterns, and their relation to others using art making as the primary – or secondary – way of communicating with art therapists.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is another type of creative therapy that harnesses the power of music for positive change. As music therapy is versatile by nature, it is an effective intervention for a range of issues especially related to teenhood; it aids in improving self-esteem, reducing anxiety and developing communication skills. It is also highly beneficial for children who have been through court proceedings, such as adoption or special guardianship, those with autism, or people suffering from dementia.

Similar to art therapy, a person does not need to have knowledge about music or play an instrument. While many may naturally develop a sensitivity to musical pitch or develop rhythmical control through music therapy, it does not aim to teach a person how to play an instrument.

A music therapist can use a range of music and music-making techniques, including structured musical activities and composition, providing a process through which people can become more aware of their feelings, express themselves, and interact more easily. As a way of putting thought and emotion together to tell a story that reflects important experiences in their lives, music therapists may support and work alongside young people to help them compose and record their songs.

A music therapy session may include rhythmic activities, singing, listening and improvisation. While there may be talking between a teen and a therapist in music therapy, most of the work is done through music. Music therapy also builds a base from which a person can learn to relax and create the capacity for self-soothing techniques.

Drama Therapy

This art therapy uses theatre and role play – as healing aspects of drama – in a therapeutic environment to facilitate change. Drama therapy applies acting and performing techniques to help address difficult emotions and express themselves. A person may work with objects, puppets, stories and movement. Art objects become the basis for a person to create stories that make sense of their experiences; by harnessing the power of metaphor, children are helped to make links between their inner and outer worlds.

The therapeutic process involves imagination, creativity and personal learning.

A drama therapist may use different techniques, such as helping a person create and portray a fictional story. They may then introduce fictional characters into the story to understand and work through the emotions a teen may have experienced through role play. This creation of a portrayed space often provides a sense of clarity and relief about difficulties.

Movement Therapy

Also known as dance therapy, movement therapy uses body movement. Once again, a person does not need any experience or dance skills but will explore different rhythms and movements. Some find that movement therapy helps them to feel more in touch with their physical surroundings.

Dance therapy uses movement to assist the integration of emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of self. Instead of using words, dance therapy helps people connect with their bodies and address difficult feelings about body appearance through movement.

The Role of the Art Therapist

Art therapists are aware and educated about various fields to help identify new strategies for managing thoughts, feelings and behaviours. They work with the principal psychotherapeutic interventions while understanding the nature and application of other relevant interventions. Arts therapists usually belong to an appropriate professional body and may work with language and speech development, normal and abnormal communication, mental illness, psychiatric assessment and treatment, social dysfunction, and congenital and acquired disability. Their field connects various disciplines, including arts, sociology, medicine, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology and psychiatry.

The physical setting and the art-making process are understood in the psychological and physical containment of emotions. Therefore, apart from knowing the practice and process of visual art-making, music, dance or drama, an art therapist has to understand the role and use of visual, auditory or movement symbols in the art that communicate conscious and unconscious processes. They also have to recognise different approaches to using visual arts, music, dance or drama in therapeutic work through different political and sociocultural contexts.

As art therapists help teens express themselves by creating something – whether it is a piece of music, a play or a painting – they work with some of the most difficult-to-reach patients in mental health services.

How Do Arts Therapies Benefit Teen Mental Health?

Arts therapy helps to leave no one behind; it is designed to give anyone access to support for their mental and health needs, including those who experience illness or disability.

Adversity affects our lives and impacts our health, but the experience of it can be challenging to put into words. Emotions can be distressing; teens may find it too upsetting to talk about painful experiences. They may feel unsure whether they can express what they are feeling or how to describe it.

While words may feel risky, there may be too much anger, confusion, or despair to identify and convey what they think. Young people may also have communication difficulties because they feel distanced from their emotions, making it difficult for them to benefit from talking therapy. In this way, creative therapies give teens access to an alternative – and sometimes more revealing – voice.

Schizophrenia

Art therapy helps by reducing the suffering from mental symptoms. Studies on art therapy for people who have schizophrenia showed that painting therapy for six months had a positive effect on their negative symptoms. Group painting therapy could reduce psychotic symptoms, boost self-esteem and improve social function in patients with schizophrenia.

Autism

It is a useful therapeutic tool to help people open up and share thoughts or experiences and an auxiliary treatment for diagnosing diseases. It can help medical specialists obtain information different from conventional tests. Painting therapy has shown significant improvement in emotions, adaptive behaviours and social interactions in individuals with autism. It allows therapists to interact one-on-one and make broad connections more effectively while encouraging a child with autism to express their experience by using nonverbal expressions – which could be crucial to their development.

Dysarthria

An art therapist provides any person with a safe environment, while art helps develop self-confidence and self-expression. It is an ideal means of communicating beyond any limits of language development while helping teens build self-awareness. For example, in dysarthria – a common sequela of cerebral palsy (CP) – art therapy can significantly improve children’s language intelligibility and social skills, especially since speech therapy does not always help.

Eating Disorders

Creative therapies like art, dance, and drama allow teens to express emotions and release negative associations with food. Non-verbal, creative therapies may lessen defence mechanisms, intellectualisation, rationalisation, and persuasion tendencies frequently used by those suffering from eating disorders when verbally describing their symptoms and feelings.

Engaging other body parts in treating eating disorders can be crucial for a person’s reconnection with their bodies and facilitate a better understanding and expression of feelings.

Personality Disorder

Arts therapies hugely benefit understanding. Art therapy – as a form of psychotherapy – may help patients with personality disorders to recognise difficult emotions, integrate conflicting thoughts, feelings, or behaviours, and find a constructive way of dealing with them. Instead of suffering through disturbing thoughts or experiences, feelings of de-motivation or depression, arts therapies can help a therapist – and a young person – understand why.

Anxiety and Depression

Anyone willing to use art to express themselves benefits from reflection on long-standing dynamics, difficulties from the past and present, or fears and anxieties about the future. Anxiety or depression – common on their own and as co-occurring conditions – also benefits from arts therapies. Arts therapies have been shown to significantly reduce depressive symptoms in students; painting therapy can promote their social function recovery and improve their quality of life and social adaptability. Studies show that art therapy for cancer patients can enhance their vitality and participation in social activities while significantly reducing stressful feelings, anxiety, and depression.

Art Therapy at The Wave

Here at The Wave, art therapies are popular amongst teens and young people. It provides a safe and tranquil space for many to express themselves and a voice to those who find it hard to talk about their feelings.

We consider art therapy a great alternative treatment approach that can be best paired with traditional therapy and medical intervention.

Alongside art therapy, we offer young people the chance to complete courses with the London School of Art. They can meet new people, increase their self-esteem and gain new skills – while working on something fun and productive.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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