What is Art Therapy?



Amy Turner is Clinical Director of Hope for Justice’s Lighthouse Assessment Centre, Phnom Penh.

One of the most exciting opportunities I get as Clinical Director at Hope for Justice is the opportunity to do groups with the girls at the Lighthouse Assessment Center. My day to day job is mainly management focused as I bring my experience to supervising our care-giving Social Work Team. Twice a week, I get to spend some quality time with these girls, making art. I’ve been a practicing Art Therapist for six years and thrilled to get the chance to provide that service to the girls.

Art Therapy may be a new term for many of you.
It’s not just crayons and paper, or even those new fancy coloring books making their ways into a bookstore near you. Art Therapy is a mental health profession that uses art making and creativity to help individuals cope with difficult experiences. In an Art Therapy session, the girls engage in creating their own artwork as a way to express feelings, gain insight, or relax the body and mind. In many studies, involvement in Art Therapy has been shown to have benefits both physically and mentally, reducing anxiety and fear, while also improving feelings of relaxation and mood. The importance of creating artwork lies, not in how your artwork looks, but in the action of doing something new to promote healing and recovery.

Art therapists are trained in both therapy and art, and have studied both psychology and human development, having received a Master’s Degree. There are various requirements for becoming an art therapist as well as certifications which means they are masters when it comes to using art as a springboard for everything from a general assessment to continued therapy. Art therapists can work with people of all ages, sex, creed, etc. They can help individuals, a couple, a family, or groups of people and depending on the situation, there may be numerous therapists working together as a clinical team.

Art therapists are trained to pick up on nonverbal signals and metaphors that are often expressed through art and the creative process, concepts that are usually difficult to express with words.

It is through this process that the individual really begins to see the effects of art therapy and the discoveries that can be made.

Art Therapists use the art making process in different ways.
At times, they can use specific interventions to have an outcome, such as an assessment. Then there are the instances that the art making process is used as therapy itself. My style of art therapy is the latter. My groups are each about 50 minutes long. We have the girls divided into two different groups, based on ages. Many times, I design two different experiences, taking in mind the age range.

The girls have responded really well to the groups, and seem to look forward to them each week. I sometimes use group time as an educational experience as well. A couple of weeks ago, we made paper snowflakes, like the ones we all made as children. Most of these girls have never seen snow before; what should have been a fairly simple art project turned into a lesson on patterns, shapes, and weather!

These groups provide me with interactions with the girls that I missed moving out of a full-time therapy role.
I didn’t know how much I would miss that until I wasn’t having sessions every day with clients. I’m not as anonymous; we get to build a therapeutic relationship. These interactions have given me more information to use in making recommendations for care as well. I have been able to point out when girls are developmentally delayed, what girls have had leadership skills, and many other cues that allow me the ability to better direct the Social Work Team in making recommendations. It also doesn’t hurt that the benefits of art therapy give these girls another chance to process what they’re thinking and feeling.

I’ve given them another language to use when trying to express what’s going on inside of them.

One of our therapists performs the group alongside me, acting mostly as a translator but also creating an opportunity for me to train her and enhance her therapeutic skills. There has been quite the difference in her skills and confidence over the few months we have had groups together. She’s now using some of the skills we have used in group, in her individual sessions.

I am excited to see how the Art Therapy program develops here at Hope for Justice Cambodia. In the last four months, we have laid quite the foundation to build a solid program and provide even better quality services to the girls that come to Lighthouse. The diversity of the staff’s abilities at Hope for Justice is what makes programming here so unique and beneficial.