Anxiety and Depression  |  Treatments

Art Heals

BY S.RANI

5 November 2020  |   5 min read

Before undergoing corrective surgery, 27-year-old Jack* had lips that appeared blue due to a condition known as Pulmonary Atresia, which he suffered since birth. Though it affected his confidence, he was more affected psychologically by his personal circumstances. Coming from a single parent family, he grew up in a tough environment and the absence of a father figure in his life had a greater impact on him than his physical condition.

Mentally, you realise that you are not going to make it out of the tunnel alone, and you have been trying to get out yourself for too long, and it still does not work, so things need to change.

About 9 years ago, he joined Project DreamCatchers, an art-based support group for youths with chronic illnesses. He was assigned a mentor who guided him to express himself through his artworks. Through the art-based activity, Jack gained greater self-awareness and learnt how to express negative emotions in a heathier way. This experience opened him up and prepared him to seek individual help from a psychologist.

What is art therapy?

Source: © 2015 Josh Kale

Work done in Project Dreamcatcher is an example of art as therapy. It includes art making activities alone as a therapeutic tool that focuses on the mind and self-expression in aid of healing. Art psychotherapy draws on the creativity and are seen as a form of self-expression and outlets to share their emotions. They reflect a non-verbal form of communication and provide an insight into the patient’s thoughts and emotions. Art therapy consists of both art as therapy and art psychotherapy.

Besides the conventional approaches such as counselling, medication and psychotherapy, the use of art therapy has rapidly gained momentum due to its evident healing properties for emotionally distressful issues, behavioural or mental health problems. Art therapy has become widely accepted in hospitals for the treatment of patients with chronic illnesses and mental health disorders such as anxiety, trauma, depression and addiction. It is effective with patients who experience extreme guilt, mood swings, low self-esteem, fear of rejection, insecurity and exhibit anti-social behaviours such as aggression and withdrawal. Combining art-making process with psychological and counselling techniques, art therapy can improve and help patients cope with stress, process traumatic experiences, resolve inner conflicts and increase self-awareness.

How does art therapy work?

Art therapy is advocated by a professional therapist in – either individual or group settings. Clinically, art therapy practice involves more art psychotherapy depending on the client’s intent, psychological needs and readiness to participate in this creative self-discovery journey.

The art therapist works with the client to reflect on the repeated process in art making and symbolism in artwork to decode the inner world of an individual which might be unconscious to them. This creates an avenue for expression and communication which might not be articulated verbally.

Ms. Loo Hwee Hwee, a senior art therapist, with the Department of Paediatrics, National University Hospital, (NUH) believes that, “Art therapy creates self-awareness in the patients allowing them to accept, express, acknowledge, and discover themselves and enables them to release hurts, trauma, and pent up emotions and hence helps in the healing process.“ The therapy along with the psychological treatment, allows patients to reach into their memories to access raw and buried traumatic memories, express their emotions and transform their thoughts. The effects are often felt and seen in their changed and improved mood, behaviours and attitudes.

Hospitals such as KK Women’s and Children’s (KKH), National University Hospital (NUH) and Singapore General and Hospital, (SGH) all offer art therapy services. The sessions may run up to an hour for individual sessions and 1.5 hours for groups. For more information, please visit the websites below

A group is important as you know that you are not the only one who is having a difficult issue, and people will be there to give tips and show compassion as they have gone through difficulties themselves.

Art and Mental Health

Art enhances mental health not just with its healing properties but with its social function that bonds people. Many hospitals and nursing homes offer art based activities and programmes which may be facilitated by art therapists and art practitioners where patients participate in workshops with the intention of showcasing their artworks in an exhibition.

Project DreamCatchers introduced Jack to patients in similar situations and how they strove to make the best out of their lives. He was able to discuss his personal life freely without judgement in a safe space.

Project Dreamcatchers gave him a spirit, ideas and instilled confidence in his ability to overcome challenges; these are intangible values which no classroom environment can offer.

Feeling more assertive now, Jack says, “I see things from a different perspective now and in art even the negative becomes positive!“

The writer was formerly an Editor of Today’s Parents. Her works have appeared in The Straits Times, Singapore Tatler, Female, Her World and Food and Travel.

*Not his real name