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Finding creative ways to heal

08 September 2017

Art and medicine: mix them up and what do you get?... Jules Morgan interviews BAAT Lead for Children and Young People's Mental Health, Mary Rose Brady for the first ever issue of The Lancet, Child & Adolescent Health...



Art and medicine: mix them up and what do you get? One result could be varying hues of art therapy—from art psychotherapy to art as therapy. They appear similar but represent distinct theoretical models of an ever-evolving hybrid discipline that shares a commonality—to design arts-inclusive models of health care.

Art psychotherapy is rooted in psychoanalytical practice; American psychologist Margaret Naumburg (1890–1983), dubbed the “Mother of art therapy”, pioneered a self-styled “dynamically orientated art therapy” in the 1940s. Her approach recognised the value of an uncensored spontaneous expression of the unconscious as a psychological route to understanding self. Interpretation did not lead to assessment and treatment—it was never supposed to be measured by any standardised diagnostic tool; it was instructive for the creator, not for the doctor. Austrian-born artist Edith Kramer (1916–2014), also influenced by psychoanalytic theory, was an advocate for the process of making art as a mechanism of healing. Kramer spearheaded the art as a therapy approach, working predominately with children in mental health-care settings, paving the way for participation in the creative arts to be considered as a valuable therapeutic intervention.

In the UK, artist Edward Adamson (1911–96) amassed a vast collection of patient art (an estimated 100 000 drawings, paintings, and sculptures) between the years 1946 and 1981. Starting as a voluntary art educator with Adrian Hill in the tuberculosis sanatoriums, he moved to the Netherne Hospital in Surrey, UK, which was then under the leadership of reforming psychiatrists Eric Cunningham Dax, Francis Reitman, and Rudolf Freudenberg. Although using controversial treatments—such as insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and lobotomy—a progressive and experimental ethos was one that welcomed Adamson, who set up an “art laboratory” for treatment and diagnostic purposes. For Adamson, reforming society's attitude towards mental health was integral to the programme, and he curated public exhibitions in the UK and internationally, so that long-term hospital residents who were excluded from society were given visibility and space. Later, the works were aptly renamed “outsider art”.

Adamson adopted a non-intervention approach; he was a facilitator, not an interpreter. Just as Carl Jung believed the artistic process alleviated trauma and stress, Adamson affirmed the healing properties of art in hospital settings. He was the first artist to be employed by the UK National Health Service (NHS), co-wrote the book Art as Healing, and helped to set up the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) in 1964, where Mary-Rose Brady is now Director of Operations and BAAT Lead for Children and Young People's Mental Health.

“The profession of art therapy is growing and gaining credibility across health, education, and community sectors”, Brady says. “Its roots are in the anti-psychiatry movement, and then post-World War 2 people noticed that it alleviated some of the symptoms related to what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder. There [has been] a shift of focus; programmes now exist in schools, for mother and child attachment, and young offenders, for example. Art therapy can be a powerful catalyst of change.” Adamson was particularly struck by the voiceless and isolated circumstance of asylum patients—and this is where art therapy is seen to open up other avenues for self-expression in a non-invasive way. “We know that the part of the brain that processes language is compromised during traumatic experiences”, Brady says. “Art therapy can facilitate and enable the externalisation of wordless experiences and feelings.” Children have limited access to language, particularly in early developmental stages, whether they have experienced trauma or not. Brady shares a poignant statement made by a young boy: “when you tell someone they might not believe you; when you make art it is there, on the table.” It can open up new lines of communication between service user and provider, or child and parent.

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