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Queens of the stick people: Epistemic trust, genuineness and artistic style in art therapy

26 September 2017

How two people who do not identify themselves as artistic found art therapy helped them when other interventions had failed... Ioanna Xenophontes, Nicci Mills and Dr Neil Springham at the 2017 Attachment & the Arts conference



This presentation focuses on how two people who do not identify themselves as artistic found art therapy helped them when other interventions had failed. It explores how it was the accumulation of trust between therapist and patient, rather than the development of a range of artistic skills or styles, which brought their art to life. This opened a means whereby they could structure their thoughts, emotions and sense of self through the visual medium. The presentation is delivered by those two group members and their art therapist who are all now members of ResearchNet which is a collaboration of service users, carers and professionals who co-produce research to improve mental health services.

It is proposed that reading the level of genuineness of their therapists is a central concern for those who have experienced attachment trauma. Reflecting on their experience of art therapy, two of the presenters identified that there were very particular disclosures and demonstrations of intent which helped them believe in their therapist. These demonstrations closely conform to the theory of ostensive communication. Attachment processes then created a reality where artworks could, for the first time, be trusted to mean something relevant and valid. This occurred even though there had been no discernible change in visual style and imagery routinely involved diagrams and stick people. When art could be trusted, the potential for considering other experiences through shared attention became more possible.

This presentation has implications for those who are interested in strengthening the therapeutic alliance and classifying types of artistic expression in art therapy (i.e. embodied images etc.) in research and practice. 


Ioanna Xenophontes, Nicci Mills and Dr Neil Springham will present at the Attachment & the Arts conference on 6th October 2017

IOANNA XENOPHONTES worked within the print industry, becoming a manager and national sales executive. Ioanna had early contact with health and school counselling services and was first prescribed anti-depressants at the age of 12 yrs. She has since experienced numerous mental health interventions but found that art therapy within a mentalization service made was what the difference. Subsequently she has led Experience Based Co-design projects within mental health services for several years and is a trainer in the method at the Point of Care Foundation. She has worked as a lecturer and mentor in art therapy and clinical psychology trainings at Goldsmith College, University of London, Canterbury Christ Church University and Roehampton University. She has trained as a lived experience practitioner within Oxleas NHS foundation Trust and has regularly delivered psychoeducation sessions within its personality disorder services. Her research interests are borderline personality disorder and violence, co-design and co-production of services. She has published on her experience of the recovery phase after mentalization based therapy. She passionately believes that more people should have access to art therapy and is working to build its credibility through research.

NICCI MILLS studied sociology and psychology and currently works as a team leader within a carehome. Nicci was first referred to CAMHS at 13 yrs and received mental health support until she entered a mentalization based treatment program where she received art therapy. Nicci has completed her lived experience practitioner training at Oxleas NHS foundation Trust and has delivered psychoeducation within its personality disorder services. She is the ResearchNet representative for the Patient Experience quality stream within the service. She is particularly interested in working with staff to use patient experience and research evidence to make mental health services more humane. Her research interests are in borderline personality disorder, trauma and attachment. Nicci contributed to a paper on ostensive communication in art therapy for the American Association of Art Therapy's journal Art Therapy. Because art therapy was given to her at a point where had it not worked she would have lost her life, she feels strongly that art therapy should be recognised as on a par with the more established treatments.

Dr NEIL SPRINGHAM is a consultant art therapist at Oxleas NHS foundation Trust in London where he is also Borough lead for psychological therapies and patient experience. He trained in art therapy in 1988 and has worked in adult mental health, addictions and now specialises in personality disorder treatment. He was a course leader at the Unit of Psychotherapeutic Studies, Goldsmiths College, co-founded the Art Therapy Practice Research Network and was twice elected chair of British Association of Art Therapists. He has a PhD in Psychology and founded ResearchNet. He has published and lectured internationally on a wide range of issues in art therapy, mentalization, coproduction and Experience Based Co-design.


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