Written by: Toni Foot
Art therapy is a way to express difficult thoughts, memories and emotions without having to use words. Art therapy and depression can work well as an alternative treatment to try. Art therapists can use music, drama, voice, dance or art to enable someone to work through their difficulties in way that bypasses the need to put their thoughts into language.
Art therapy can be used to help with depression
For people suffering from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, verbalising their thoughts can be incredibly difficult; partly because they often have negative feelings about themselves and therefore feel that what they have to say isn’t valuable and partly because they sometimes simply don’t know what makes them feel the way they do.
Feelings of disassociation (being disconnected with reality) are common in those with depression, which can make identifying the cause of their thoughts and feelings challenging for both the individual and the therapist. Similarly, someone with depression may feel overwhelmed by their emotions, almost as if they are one big knot of confused issues. These feelings can lead the person to withdraw from others (including therapists) or to feel like they physically cannot say how they feel. Arts therapy can really help people who feel like this because the therapists can encourage the person to express emotions without words. The pieces created can give the therapist an ‘inside view’ of how the person sees themselves and the world around them. This can provide a ‘map’ of the issues that need to be discussed in talking therapy, or explored in more detail through further artistic expression.
How does it work?
Each art form can allow expression in different ways. Music therapy encourages expression without language (although depending on the individual needs of the patient this may be offered alongside talking therapy). No previous knowledge is needed to benefit from music therapy as it usually involves instruments that can produce a pleasing sound with very little experience (such as wood blocks, simple harps, xylophones or drums). You may be asked to participate in pre-prepared pieces of music or improvisation (creating music ‘on the spot’).
Drama therapy can encourage expression through dealing with real or imagined experiences. Acting out an event can help a person to see it differently, or to express their view of a situation that may not have been obvious to others. Dance and movement therapy can help therapists to identify emotions that the patient may not even know they feel. Emotions are often expressed through physical stance and movement (for example, someone who feels that they are insignificant or worthless may attempt to make themselves small or hunched).
Voice therapy can be particularly effective for people who feel they are physically unable to talk about their feelings. Using different types of noises, shouts, whispers and cries in conjunction with massage and vocal exercises can encourage someone to use their voice in new ways and therefore feel more able to speak where they have previously found this difficult. Breathing techniques are also used to help open the airways and relieve blockages (whether these come from physical or emotional causes).
Art therapies using clay or malleable mediums can provide ways to express feelings that change whilst collages using found or natural items can help to reconnect with reality. Taking photographs can help to identify what the person is inclined to notice in their daily experiences.
How do I find out more?
In some areas arts therapists are part of the local NHS team. This means that a GP can refer patients to appropriate therapists. Although this is not available in all NHS trusts, it is definitely worth speaking to your GP if you think arts therapy could help you. Even if they cannot refer you directly, they may be able to suggest where you could look for more help and information. Arts therapy is frequently used as part of psychiatric units as a method of helping severely affected individuals to express their feelings when they are unable to do so through talking therapies.
Alternatively, you can access arts therapy through private organisations (although this can be costly at times). Arts therapists are required to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and to follow the same professional guidelines as other therapists. If you wish to check if your therapist is registered you can use the HCPC website. Therapists may also choose to register with the appropriate association for their particular art form. These associations can provide information about the art form and lists of registered therapists to help you locate someone appropriate to your needs.
Health and Care Professions Council: www.hpc-uk.org
Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy UK (ADMP UK): www.admt.org.uk
British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT): www.baat.org
British Association of Drama Therapists (BADth): www.badth.org.uk
British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT): www.bamt.org
International Association for Voice Movement Therapy: www.iavmt.org