Art Therapy and addiction: Michelle Guinness talks to the SSA
“When a client presents an image to the group, they offer a view of themselves, of their internal world which can be full of symbols and metaphors”
SSA: Can you tell me what your role is?
MG: “I’m the lead Arts Therapist in an NHS acute Mental Health inpatient setting. I have an MA in Art Psychotherapy and am Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered to practice which is a statutory requirement in the UK. I’m also the co-coordinator of the Addictions Special Interest Group for the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT)”
What is your experience of using Art Therapy in addiction settings?
“I have provided individual and group Art Therapy sessions on structured day programmes, in a women’s bail hostel and in a prescribing service. I have also set up and facilitated a mixed gender group in an abstinent rehab centre.
Art Therapy in addiction is no longer solely hospital based. Today, Art Therapists work in a range of settings: within multidisciplinary teams, in community settings, schools, community centres and residential rehabs. As people have seen the benefits of art therapy it has become increasingly used.
Art Therapy is grounded in psycho-dynamic theory although cognitive, humanistic, person-centred and solution focused approaches are also used.
One of the aims of Art Therapy is that it provides a safe, containing medium to allow difficult emotions and feelings to be expressed. The non-verbal process allows an opportunity for people who use drugs to gently explore repressed or unrecognised feelings/emotions through art making.
Many people who use drugs also experience, guilt, shame, low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority; often coupled with a history of abuse or trauma. Verbalising thoughts, feelings and emotions may sometimes be difficult, and this is where Art Therapy is an ideal medium. Creating an image allows the client to externalise their thoughts, feelings and emotions; to sit with uncomfortable emotions and to test out new behaviours.”
“No special skills are required to attend Art Therapy, only the desire and curiosity to engage.”
What does a typical Art Therapy session involve?
“A typical Art Therapy session will depend on the setting and can be an individual or group session. Prior to engaging, there may be an assessment to discuss expectations and explain the process of Art Therapy.
There is often an agreed number of sessions and an explanation about which type of group it will be. A ‘rolling open’ group allows group members to attend at different times depending on their treatment. A ‘closed’ group, means that people start and finish together. Artwork created during sessions is stored confidentially in accordance to the regulations of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).
No special skills are required to attend Art Therapy, only the desire and curiosity to engage. Clients may be anxious about their ability to draw or paint as they may not have engaged in any form of creativity since school or childhood. Sometimes a client’s anxiety about their perceived inability to draw can intensify feelings of failure and shame, and by association, shame of self and fear of failure. Failure for many clients in treatment is linked to lapse or relapse.
An Art Therapist will provide a range of materials for the client to engage with. Some Art Therapists provide themes whereas others will encourage clients to experiment and see what emerges. If clients are able to experiment and play with the materials, they can allow unconscious feelings to emerge.
Sessions will contain a period of art making followed by a discussion of the images. There is no judgement of technique, whether something is perceived as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ during the group discussion, the emphasis is on opening up the image for associations. When a client presents an image to the group, they offer a view of themselves, of their internal world which can be full of symbols and metaphors. An individual may develop new meaning and will often connect to other group members through shared symbols and experiences.
The composition of the group allows for group members to feel at ease about revealing details of their substance use to others and reduces the risk of rejection. Through disclosure, both verbally and in their images, they are able to see that they are not as different as they think and that they are not alone in their thinking. No other client group are as stigmatised as those in treatment for addiction.”
If people want to know more about art therapy, where can they find information?
“There are several good resources. There is the British Association of Art Therapists (https://www.baat.org/About-Art-Therapy). In the UK, it is a statutory requirement that art therapists/art psychotherapists have to be by law on the Health and Care Professions Council register. There is also the American Association of Art Therapy (https://arttherapy.org/) and the European Association of Art Therapy (https://www.arttherapyfederation.eu/)”
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