Ask A Shentonista: Art Therapy


Art Therapist

It’s been a trying time for everyone, amidst the many changes across the past couple of weeks. We might all be experiencing some form of stress or heightened anxiety as this state of limbo continues, so we wanted to find out about alternative ways to seek help. In this Ask A Shentonista feature, we spoke to Joshua, who is an art therapist and multi-disciplinary art maker, who shed some light about his practice.

What is Art Therapy?
We often underestimate how challenging it can be to sit with a stranger and talk about the things that we are struggling with, especially if we do not understand it ourselves. I believe that Art Therapy provides a safe space to explore one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences in therapy using a range of art materials, without having to find the ‘right’ words.

I often say that Art Therapy is made up of two major parts that work hand in hand: the ‘art’ and the ‘therapy’. Making art, in and of itself, can be inherently calming, confidence-building, cathartic etc. For a time, there was a trend in colouring books for adults that were being marketed as ‘art therapy’. While they are soothing and enjoyable for some people—benefits that what we call ‘therapeutic’—they unfortunately are not art therapy. That is because it is missing the actual psychological therapy work with a trained therapist.

That brings us to the second defining component of the treatment: the therapy. The Art Therapists who journey alongside you on your mental health journey hold a postgraduate Master’s qualification in this field, and often have an extensive background in visual arts, psychology, or working with vulnerable people. This gives them specialist experience in using both psychotherapy and the visual language in the therapy room. Art-making becomes a tool that can be used to understand your struggles in your sessions.

How did it begin?
Art Therapy, also known as Art Psychotherapy, is an evidence-based psychological treatment that uses art-making as the main form of expression and communication in the sessions. The practice has its roots in post-World War II Britain, where artists working in hospitals, and their accompanying medical staff, turned to the field of psychotherapy to understand the beneficial effects that art-making had on their patients’ recovery. This combination of the fields of visual art and psychological therapy has grown over the decades into the formal discipline it is today.

How is it different from conventional therapy/counselling? Who is it for?
What makes art therapy different from talk therapies is the focus on using non-verbal art-making in the therapy room. The aim is for you and the trained art therapist to work together, using both the artworks created and discussion in therapy, to explore what is happening for yourself.

It is important to note it does not mean that any therapy approach is necessarily better than the other, but you may find one more suitable for your situation and personality. I always feel it is important to find the right fit of therapy for yourself. Everyone heals differently, and it is important that we allow for that.

Art therapy can be used with a wide range of ages, and conditions. It can be especially useful for people who find it difficult to talk about what they are thinking, feeling, or experiencing currently, and may find it easier to work visually. These sessions are not art classes, though they can of course be enjoyable, and be done individually or in groups.

Art therapists commonly work with children, young people, adults, and the elderly in a variety of settings, such as schools, prisons, hospices, and hospitals. These clients may have a wide range of difficulties, disabilities, or diagnoses, including emotional, behavioural, or mental health problems, learning or physical disabilities, life-limiting conditions, neurological conditions, and physical illnesses.

Is it possible to do art therapy at home/online? What items are needed?
There is a common misconception that art therapy consists of generic art activities that can be done at home. While there are specific art exercises that art therapists will use in our sessions, it is unhelpful to ‘prescribe’ them for somebody to do by themselves, since these activities are used carefully within the context of the individual’s therapy.

Nevertheless, there are generic therapeutic exercises that can be used regularly to ground yourself, such as art journaling, drawing mandalas, or making timelines of your life. Art Therapy can also be done online together with your art therapist. Many art therapists have had to switch to working over video call to adapt to the current pandemic, where the client is able to use whatever basic art materials they have available at home during the session.

During this pandemic, have you seen an increase in people coming to you for art therapy? What are some emerging reasons why people turn to art therapy?

Yes, based on my conversations with colleagues, there has been a marked increase in people seeking help for their mental health in Singapore during the pandemic. Some are feeling like they have relapsed in their mental health struggles; others are struggling with symptoms like low mood and anxiety for the first time in their lives.

I think the pandemic, and the accompanying stay-at-home measures, have forced many of us to face ourselves and the people we live with, and to re-evaluate what we value in life. For some who have come to therapy for the first time during this period, there is a feeling that “something is not right”, but it is hard for them to pinpoint what is wrong. This can be confusing for them because everything seems to be going relatively well on the surface, despite the pandemic.

However, the truth is that many of us are having to deal with a multitude of hidden losses in the wake of this pandemic: the loss of our normalcy, separation from loved ones, cancellation of traditional events, etc. Many of the symptoms we are experiencing are those of grief. How do you mourn that for which there is no funeral? We are unconsciously grieving things that are so intangible, and therapy provides a safe avenue to name and process those feelings.

Can art therapy help people develop better self-care routines? Could you elaborate further?
“Mental health” and “self-care” have definitely become the latest buzzwords amidst the pandemic, as we begin to realise the impact the situation has had on our wellbeing. But it is important for ourselves, and our employers, to understand what it really means to take care of your mental health, and to have helpful conversations about it.

One of the first steps to self-care is to grow your self-awareness—to know when you need to draw boundaries, rest, or engage etc. Art therapy helps us become more aware of the emotional and thought processes that might be occurring unconsciously for us. By naming, acknowledging, and externalising it, we can then start to work on it. For example, through my own journey with art therapy, I have come to realise that making and creating are essential to making myself feel better. So when I am struggling, I turn to creating—whether it is cooking, making or drawing.

The key thing to remember is that your brain is an organ, like the other parts of your body. So it too can break down or struggle during difficult times. When we break our arm, we usually go straight to the doctor instead of trying to continue on with our lives. Yet, when our mind struggles, we often try to keep pushing on, in the hopes that it will solve itself. Pay attention to the signals that your mind is giving you, much like the signs that your body sends you.

What advice would you give people who are apprehensive about art therapy?
It is normal to initially feel apprehensive about any therapy. But rest assured that you do not need to be good at art to use Art Therapy, as long as you are open to using art materials to express yourself. No previous experience or skill in art making is required.

Another misconception some people may have is that the art therapists will judge, diagnose, or interpret their artworks. We definitely do not do that. In fact, there is a memorable (but misleading) scene in recent Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite, where one of the main characters, whilst pretending to be an art therapist, diagnoses a young boy’s painting as having a ‘schizophrenic’ corner. I can tell you with certainty that there is no such thing! While it makes for an entertaining plot, such depictions are definitely not true of art therapy and can also be damaging to those who do struggle with mental health.

Many people still find mental health a taboo topic. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement to those struggling with mental health issues, or to the general public?
You don’t need to be considered ‘unwell’ by others to see a mental health professional. People from all walks of life and situations can benefit from journeying alongside a therapist. If you have found yourself especially struggling with your mental health during this time, it is so important to realise that you are not alone in grappling with it.

Back when the pandemic first began, those of us working in mental health predicted that the next ‘wave’ would come in the form of mental health struggles. That ‘wave’ is happening now, and it is completely understandable. There cannot be such sudden and major disruption to everyday life and constant uncertainty without it having some sort of psychological effect on us. As a colleague aptly put it recently, our struggles during this period are but normal reactions to abnormal times.

As Joshua shared, anyone can benefit from therapy, and there is no shame in seeking someone to speak to if you feel that something’s not quite right. Below are some helpful resources that you can turn to for the next step of your journey:

1. How Are You, Really? has put together this Instagram post with places that you can get affordable therapy in Singapore.
2. If you know someone struggling with depression, How Are You, Really? has also put together a podcast, Pods For Support, with ways to get started on helping others in their mental health journey.
3. For young parents, My Mental Health is a podcast from doctors, psychologists and allied health professionals from Child Development Unit at the National University Hospital, where they discuss social-emotional health in young children and share knowledge and tips on how to better support children with behavioural or developmental needs.

Check out these Instagram accounts for more on mental health issues:
1. Mental Health Collective SG
2. Calm Collective Asia
3. Let’s Talk Mental Health
4. How Are You, Really?
5. My Safe Sphere
6. Your Head Lah!
7. Crazy Head Comics
8. Real Depression Project

Also, stay tuned to our Instagram, where we’ll be sharing some responses that we gathered from our Shentonista community about how they’ve been doing, as well as some small ways to cope.

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