The Picture of (Mental) HealthJun 23, 2023 01:05PM ● By Susan Meyers
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Art therapy is a growing therapeutic technique that, for some, can provide healing and a deeper understanding of oneself. Christine Hennig, MH, ATR, LIMHP, a registered art therapist and mental health practitioner, has discovered art therapy has far-reaching benefits—both in her professional and personal life. She describes it as the catalyst that ultimately liberated her from one of the most difficult struggles in life.
As a child, Hennig suffered years of sexual abuse. She was ashamed. She blamed herself. It was too painful, too difficult to discuss. So, Hennig suppressed it.
That was until she discovered the healing power of art.
Now, when childhood memories of her personal trauma resurface and threaten to consume her, she picks up her brush and begins to paint.
“It’s a release—a powerful form of communication that allows you to reach into the deepest part of your soul to explore and express your feelings about the challenges in your life,” Hennig said.
For Hennig, art has provided validation for her experiences and has helped reduce feelings of shame and anxiety.
“It can be soothing and centering and helps enhance your self-esteem,” she said.
The basis of art therapy lies in the idea that creative expression can encourage healing, self-expression, and overall mental well-being. While people have been using the arts for communication and self-expression for thousands of years, it didn’t formally become a part of clinical practice until the 1940s.
Studies have found that it can be especially effective for people suffering from mental disorders and psychological distress, such as: trauma, grief, personality disorders, self-esteem problems, anxiety, depression, stress, and chronic health issues.
Hennig invites her clients to use art when words aren’t enough—or simply won’t materialize—to express their feelings and unique challenges.
“It’s not for everyone,” Hennig said. “But for those who find it helpful, it can have a profound impact.”
Hennig was in college pursing an art degree at the Kansas City Art Institute, in Kansas City, Missouri, when she first realized that her canvas had become a reservoir for suppressed feelings. Using a variety of mediums, Hennig found the process of creating art freeing and uplifting. The lingering helplessness she had felt as a child was gradually replaced with a new sense of control and empowerment.
“I found the process of art making stimulated both the cognitive and the emotional centers of the brain, resulting in a holistic therapeutic experience,” Hennig said. “It helped me tremendously.”
Excited about the newfound insight she’d gained from her art, Hennig began seeing an art therapist. That’s when she knew she had found her vocation. After completing a degree in fine arts, Hennig went on to become a licensed mental health practitioner and a registered art therapist herself.
Today, Hennig focuses her practice on people who have experienced trauma and abuse, medical challenges, and aging difficulties. She integrates psychotherapy (talk therapy) with art for those seeking alternative avenues to healing.
“People often find there are some things that can’t be expressed with words,” Hennig explained. “Art accesses a different part of the brain that allows a person to express feelings of shame, grief, trauma, loss of independence, or control. It becomes a powerful form of communication about yourself.”
Part of the beauty of art therapy is that artistic ability isn’t necessarily required to reap the benefits of the techniques. That’s because the process is not about the finished product, but rather, about finding associations between the creative choices made and one’s inner feelings and experiences. With the guidance of a certified art therapist, clients can find deeper meaning in their creations by interpreting the messages, symbols, and metaphors that appear in their art. This can serve as a springboard to reawaken memories and help them attain a deeper understanding of themselves and their behaviors.
Kimberly Mueller, MS, ATR, LIMHP, a registered art therapist and licensed mental health practitioner, has found art therapy to be an effective adjunct to talk therapy, utilizing various tools and exercises to help her adult and teen clients find psychological relief and greater self-awareness.
She often starts new client visits with an art project that serves as an icebreaker. The project entails having the client create a picture or collage representing the relationships in their lives. This art becomes a vision board that helps them understand and express what they want from those relationships, Mueller noted.
She has also found the ‘broken bowl’ exercise to be an effective way to help patients better understand their own fragmented psyche. The exercise entails breaking a bowl and then having the client piece it back together and mend it with gold foil.
“Sometimes in life you have to destroy something before you can create something new,” she explained. “The client has to make decisions about how they are going to fit the pieces back together and make it whole again. It symbolizes the work they are accomplishing in therapy and helps them see their brokenness in a different light.”
Mueller said she always likes to keep a variety of art supplies on hand when meeting with clients, especially teens.
“I may hand them a clay ball and ask them to make something that symbolizes who they are,” she said. “Their hands may start to form shapes without even thinking about it. Sometimes feelings and emotions can come out in your art that you’re not even aware of. The great thing about art is that while you can’t go back and look at your words, you can go back and look at your art.”
Mueller said the healing power of art has revealed new perspectives and broken barriers for many of her clients. She has found the applications for art therapy to be endless—and the insights, invaluable.
Jea Theis, MSW, LCSW, LIMHP, first encountered the benefits of art therapy approximately five years ago, and has since become an ardent proponent of its benefits. Theis is a licensed mental health therapist and is certified in expressive arts therapy, which is founded on the same principles as traditional art therapy, but incorporates other forms of art, such as drama, dance, and music to provide clients a wider range expression.
Theis has been working in the social services and mental health field for nearly 20 years. Most of her clients have experienced some type of trauma, whether it be family violence, grief and loss, or sexual abuse. She also works with professionals dealing with compassion fatigue—a phenomenon that can occur among caregivers who are frequently exposed to other peoples’ traumas or stressors—leading to emotional and physical burnout.
She was initially introduced to the therapy by colleague Betsy Funk, LCSW, LIMHP, MPA REAT, a clinical social worker, licensed independent mental health practitioner, and registered expressive art therapist, whom she was sharing an office with at the time.
The timing proved ideal. Theis had been searching for ways to incorporate more creativity into her practice that would allow her clients to process trauma and life challenges from different angles. As the two discussed the therapy, Theis was intrigued by the potential outcomes of expressive arts therapy.
Theis decided to test the therapy by incorporating it into several workshops she was leading that focused on helping professionals address compassion fatigue.
The results proved highly positive.
“There’s something about expressing yourself through creative arts without using words that helps bring about a deeper understanding of yourself and your challenges,” Theis said. “I found the healing process can be intensified by clients immersing themselves in art and nature and through the connection with others.”
Shortly thereafter, Theis completed her training in expressive arts therapy and became a registered expressive arts therapist through the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA).
In the meantime, Funk had developed a program for children and teens through local nonprofit Project Harmony called Growing through Expressive Arts Together (GREAT). The program involves a series of eight small group sessions held at schools to help teens work through mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, relationships, behavioral issues, and social skills.
Funk began leading the groups at a handful of area high schools, and the program quickly surged in popularity. To keep up with its rapid growth, Funk developed a facilitator training program in 2019 to train other therapists on how to lead the groups using the expressive arts model. It is now offered at the majority of local elementary and middle schools throughout the greater Omaha area. Theis said they expect to have nearly 50 more therapists trained to lead the school groups by this summer.
The GREAT group typically starts by taking a feelings thermometer from the students. “We use expressive arts to help teens work through things like ‘Who am I?’ ‘How do I share my feelings with others?’ and, ‘How do I identify?” Theis said. “The students can use a variety of expressive modalities including visual art, writing, music, and drama to movement—anything with the body that’s expressive.”
Relaxation techniques like breathing and meditation are also central to the process.
“By the end of the eight-week session, we typically see a significant shift in stress levels, reactive emotions, acting out, and anxiety,” Theis said. “This group gives the students a voice—a way to express how they’re feeling. It helps them form relationships and gain a greater sense of belonging.”
In fact, a recent survey of 141 student participants revealed a significant decrease in emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and peer conflicts by the end of the eight-week sessions.
Kate Kiger, an Omaha middle-schooler, is one such participant who has been touched by the healing power of art therapy. Before she began attending the group, Kate confessed she was very shy, had extreme social anxiety, and was afraid to talk to other peers in a group setting. She mostly kept to herself and avoided eye contact with others.
When her father, Jason Kiger, heard about the GREAT group, he said he knew Kate had a love for art and hoped the combination of art and therapy would be good for her.
As It turned out, it was exactly what Kate needed.
Initially, Kate didn’t like talking, so doing art projects was an escape for her.
“It allowed me to express myself through my art instead of talking,” she recalled. “It felt calming and relaxing.”
Gradually, Kate began to share her feelings, but doing art at the same time allowed her to speak openly without maintaining eye contact with others. As Kate learned to share, she realized that others in the group held similar feelings and could relate.
“The group allowed us to talk about our problems, share how we felt, and develop solutions,” she said.
As her fear of sharing gradually began to dissipate, a newfound confidence carried over to her life outside of the group.
“The change has been remarkable,” Jason said. “Today, she has a good group of friends, she has better control of her emotions, and she can verbalize herself much better than ever before.”
Success stories like these have encouraged Theis and Funk to incorporate expressive arts therapy into their practices in novel ways. They have found its benefits undeniable, especially for those dealing with trauma or mental health issues. Ongoing research validates its effectiveness.
“Expressive arts therapy continues to accrue research in support of its efficacy in improving mental health outcomes,” Theis said.
In 2016, Theis and Funk founded the Omaha Therapy & Arts Collaborative. OTAC is a therapeutic group practice dedicated to providing mental health services through traditional psychotherapy combined with other unique and specialized forms of therapy, including: expressive arts therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and eco-therapy (nature-based therapy).
In addition to private counseling, OTAC also offers mental health retreats and training to attorneys, therapists, teachers, social workers, other school personnel, and professionals. Additionally, GREAT program groups are offered at their clinic.
The two women, along with colleague Natalie Hogge, MA, LIMHP, registered expressive arts therapist, later founded the community-based nonprofit Nebraska Expressive Art Therapy Foundation (NExT) to provide greater access to mental health and expressive arts therapy for individuals or groups who are marginalized or underserved. Expanding training and certification opportunities in this field for students in Nebraska and the surrounding area is another important goal of NExT.
“Seeing the positive effects expressive art therapy can have on people and watching them grow and change is very inspiring,” Theis said. “It’s what inspires me to keep learning and developing new and innovative ways to help others. Through our work with the NExT Foundation, we hope to grow the pool of practitioners offering this therapy and expand the number of people who have access to it and can experience the healing power of art.”