Photo By: Gale D’Souza

Art therapy is a growing field in psychology, one that has a lot of potential. 

For those who are unaware, the Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA) describes art therapy as a combination of the creative process and discussion of your issues with your mental health provider. Because feelings and thought processes can sometimes be difficult to express, it is thought that this can be facilitated through engaging in artistic expression.

You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from this approach to therapy. In fact, most of us already practice some of these forms of therapy unconsciously. Whether you practice art as a hobby or as a coping mechanism, it can be very relaxing. Many people use music to relax, and even if they are not actively playing an instrument, just the act of listening and immersing yourself in your favourite songs can provide great mental health benefits.

Mélita Richardson is an art therapist who has been living in the Niagara Region for the past 21 years. Originally from New Brunswick, she moved to Ontario to pursue her teaching career and her passion for art. Not only is Richardson an art therapist, but she is also an art teacher and has been the president of the Ontario Art Therapy Association (OATA) since May 2021.

“As the new OATA president, some of my goals were to promote professional development for our members and offer as many opportunities as possible,” said Richardson. “I also want my members to feel they are part of a unique group of professionals. I want to rally people so we can educate our communities about the work that we do.” 

Richardson graduated from the Toronto Art Therapy Institute in 2007 as an art therapist, she then became a psychotherapist which has allowed her to combine both approaches effectively. Art therapy is unfortunately not covered by any insurance currently, so the price of the sessions can make it difficult for people to access specialists. However, since Richardson is a psychotherapist, her services are covered under insurance, which made her art therapy resources a bit more accessible.

“I didn’t know [art therapy] existed when I was growing up, I just discovered it here and I love art and psychology and I thought it would be perfect for me,” said Richardson. “When you go to art therapy or any counselling courses you have to do your own therapy, you have to do a certain number of hours with other therapists and an art therapist. In order to help people, you have to look into yourself, you cannot help people if you don’t know yourself.”

Art and therapy are both subjective experiences. Art can mean different things to different people, it can take the form of music, painting, drawing, writing, dancing, and anything that fosters creativity. That is why art therapy is client focused. 

“[The service] is catered to each individual. When a client comes into the studio, they take the lead. If they come to see me, they want a resource, they want to build a relationship with someone, or else they wouldn’t come. So when they present themselves here, I want them to find the strength in themselves to make a decision,” said Richardson.

For example, at the start of a typical session, the first thing the client does is choose where to sit and what type of art they would like to do. Taking this initiative is the first step Richardson tries to get her clients to take. 

“I think it is a powerful tool to really get to understand yourself. For me, when I do art I find peace, I find answers within myself. Sometimes whenever I have a hard decision to make, art helps me find that answer,” said Richardson when asked what art therapy means for her. “Art is also very healing, sometimes it is peaceful, sometimes it’s expressive, you can bring out any type of emotion into your art piece.” 

So, what exactly is the effect of art on mental health? Well, according to the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM), “art enhances brain function by impacting brain wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system.” It also raises serotonin levels, the chemical that works as a mood stabilizer and is often linked with feeling good.

“It has a calming effect on yourself, it regulates people, and has healing properties, it’s a good way to express yourself,” said Richardson. 

When people think of therapy, they are usually expected to communicate with words, but some clients don’t feel comfortable talking or don’t want to talk. Instead, they can create a piece of art without verbal cues. Richardson describes her time with one of her clients who is mute and was able to express themselves through their art.

“It’s a safe space to just be with someone and not say a word and it’s okay,” said Richardson.

Just like all sectors, the beginning of the pandemic was hard for Richardson’s clinic. A lot of her clients were hesitant to come because everything was so unclear, and unfortunately, since art therapy is so hands-on, a lot of the clients didn’t want to do phone sessions. When the schools were closed, Richardson was forced to teach online, which led her to offer virtual sessions in her clinic. 

Since Richardson is a registered psychotherapist, she was able to see people in person when the province started opening up again. She followed the health guidelines and quickly returned to her services, this time offering both in-person for those comfortable and virtual sessions as an alternative.

We have seen an increase in mental health problems as a result of the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was a 25 per cent increase in depression and anxiety in the first year of the pandemic. This has served as a wake up call for many to not take their mental health lightly.

“I find that people are more inclined nowadays to think of mental health as a part of themselves, so people are more open to trying new ways of therapy,” said Richardson.   

Her sessions are typically an hour-long as anything longer can be too emotional and draining for the client. If the art project the client is working on is not done, she saves them for the next session, they then decide whether they would like to start a new project or finish what they started in the previous session. 

Choosing whether to continue a previous piece or start a new one is important because it tells the therapist if the client has moved on and healed from processing that “piece” and wants to move on to something new. Or sometimes it is uncomfortable to look back at that art piece, allowing the therapist to know how the client is feeling. 

“Seeking an art therapy professional can help you find new ways to deal with anxiety, stress, depression, bipolarity, and various diagnoses, or something you haven’t been diagnosed with. It can have some benefits to calm the system and get some release,” said Richardson.   

Creativity is an essential part of life and when it is introduced into therapy, it provides another layer of expression, allowing you to communicate and heal in ways you may not have been aware of before. Art therapy doesn’t just rely on talking, it relies on your senses; the smell of paint, the texture of a sculpture, the images you create, the music you hear.

The interpretation of the art is another important part of the therapy. When a client is finished working on a piece, they are asked to come up with a name for what they made, they’re asked how it felt while they were creating or to verbally explain what they created. Their creation and its meaning is a communication with the art, it brings out what they produced, it comes from them and them alone. 

“They are the creators of their art and their life, I’m just a vessel to help them to take the lead of their life, help them make a decision, also maybe find strategies that they can try to see if it would help with their issue. I cannot tell them what to do but we can talk about strategies,” said Richardson. 

As previously mentioned, Richardson has been teaching art for 21 years, and just as in her clinic, she aspires for her classroom to be a safe space for students. She believes music plays a big part in art therapy, not even playing it, just listening to music.

“You can use your imagination to create images that would go with music, same as when you read a book. You have to imagine what the scene looks like, with music you have to listen, but you can create images in your brain,” said Richardson.

Richardson may play music and ask the client to draw it. This means using symbols, colours, and textures that match what they are feeling. Of course, we would all perceive this differently, which reinforces the client-focused therapy in art.  

Richardson is always looking to expand and for new opportunities. She recently had the opportunity to run an art therapy program for victims of human trafficking with an anonymous organization. 

“I knew the reality, but I was not in touch with the reality because I had not worked with victims of human trafficking in the Niagara Region,” said Richardson. “When we see people, we don’t see their experience, we don’t see all the hurt that they’re going through. Art is a really good outlet for any situation or any individual to work on themselves.”

Art is present in our everyday lives and people have relied on different forms of art to cope with the stresses of school, work, the pandemic, and life as whole, without being aware of how much it can help.  

Here are some testaments from Brock students about how art has helped their mental health.

Sarah Asif, fourth-year medical science student and president of the GoLive club at Brock, does more than just listen to music to nourish that creative side.

“I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, and it is something that comes naturally to me. I do play the piano, but I would say drawing is the art form I practice the most. I also dance whenever I get the chance,” said Asif. “Dancing definitely helps [my mental health] because it is a physical activity that increases energy and makes me feel happier in general. It helps me shake off all that stress that accumulates in my body.” 

Asif raises a good point about perfectionism. For her, drawing can sometimes become stressful when it doesn’t turn out how she wanted it, and this can be applied to many other areas, but learning to let go of these high expectations can be very liberating. 

“In the past, I used to make funny comics about things that happened in my life. It was my way of coping and finding laughter in times that were hard. I definitely used it as an expression of my feelings,” said Asif.

She also describes how crucial creativity is in one’s life. It can help by providing an alternative perspective, introducing more exciting opportunities, and building connections on a deeper level. 

“I feel like art has the ability to relieve stress and free you, as long as you let it take its time. There is a misconception that only beautiful things are art, but I feel like there shouldn’t be a standard. As long as you are making something that is true to you, it is art,” said Asif.   

Arvith Jhirad, is a third-year public health student and vice-president of Brock’s Bollywood dance club, practices a dance called Bharatnatyam, as well as other forms such as Bollywood and hip-hop in a recreational form. 

“It’s definitely a stress buster. It’s the time of the day or week when I get to take my mind off of school or other issues that may be bothering me. Dance is the one hobby that really gets me immersed into what I’m doing,” said Jhirad. 

Jhirad describes how creativity has provided a different perspective in her life, and how it has served as an outlet to express her emotions and as a motivator. 

“Creativity truly allows you to develop unique thinking when it comes to your academic or professional life and it can be a great advantage to you,” said Jhirad. 

Katie Foshay, a fourth-year concurrent education student and social media manager for Brock Musical Theatre, practices performance arts exclusively.

“I feel like art as a whole is extremely therapeutic when it comes to stress. However, for those that have a career in arts, it can also be quite strenuous; [art] like any profession or hobby, it has amazing benefits but also its drawbacks,” said Foshay. “I would say that art and creativity are absolutely crucial for a person’s mental health. It’s a phenomenal outlet not only to express yourself and your personality but also to relieve stress and tension.”

These examples show us how art, outside of a therapy setting, is still able to help us deal with stress and provide new perspectives. So if you only take away one thing from this article, make sure that you take the time to tap into your creative side, the potential benefits are endless.