Healing with art | Sunday Observer

Healing with art

4 October, 2020

Art is mostly a process. The journey of creation is an adventure; a wonderful stimulating experience that leads to all sorts of doors and windows being opened in the mind for you to view new vistas which would have been previously unimaginable.

It is widely believed that art contains the potential of a therapeutic effect on the practitioner as well as the consumer. However, this is not a belief that could be generalized. Whereas art could make one relaxed, calm, or contented, art could also cause discontent, worry, sadness or anxiety. For an example, a cinematic work of art which portrays or promotes violence, drug and alcohol use, physical or psychological abuse may not have a therapeutic effect on its viewers. Art is a tool which could be used to cut both ways. As such there is a distinctive difference between art and art therapy.

I had the opportunity to experience and acknowledge this difference at a workshop conducted by Dr. Rajitha Dinushini Marcellin at the Vista Counselling and Training Centre. Dr. Rajitha who is the acting Consultant Psychiatrist at the Kebithigollewa Base Hospital is a trained and certified art based therapist who attempts to integrate art based therapy into her psychiatric practice as well as her peripheral professional life.

During the workshop I got to realize that the consequences of art which I have experienced as an artist and had conceived as therapeutic were very different to the experience which art based therapy provided. The activities were a combination of music, drama, storytelling and visual arts which were done as group activities as opposed to the solitary art practice I was accustomed to. The most prominent realization was the emergence of the ‘inner child’ which was induced by the activities. Throughout the workshop the participants were encouraged to let go of judgements and inhibitions which were limiting their ability to discover happiness of the present moment. By the end of the workshop I was compelled to acknowledge that the true meaning of creation or consumption of arts should be to enhance physical, psychological, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing of individuals. In order to probe more into this realization, I decided to interview Dr. Rajitha Dinushini Marcellin.

She initiated the conversation by saying: “If one chooses to use art in a systematic manner to fulfil certain goals with regard to wellbeing, that practice could be called ‘integrated art based therapy’. Specifically, Art based therapy can be classified as a practice which contains clear therapeutic goals such as the development of self awareness, narrative capabilities, effective relationships, cognitive abilities, etc., which are achieved through a therapeutic relationship. Art based therapy is increasingly recognized as an effective alternative method for mental health practitioners all over the world. However, here in Sri Lanka it still remains as a minimally explored territory in the vast area of mental health and psychiatric or psychological support.

I am trying to use my training as an art based therapist in the mental health sector and have conducted workshops for the Ministry of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, and some other institutions.”

The programs conducted by Dr. Rajitha are twofold. One is the training of healthcare professionals and the other is the therapeutic intervention for the patients or clients: those who live with mental illness as well as for others who attempt to deal with day to day stress, anxiety, etc. However, according to Dr. Rajtha art based therapy is not suitable for patients with acute mental illnesses and it is when the illness is contained to some extent with medications or other interventions that art based therapy could be used to make the progress more rapid. Usually a significant positive change in the patients could be observed when these techniques are employed.

Dr. Rajitha goes on to say, “It is important that the facilitator is a trained and experienced art therapist in order to achieve substantial results. If the principles of art based therapy are well understood then a positive impact is quite possible. Without understanding the therapeutic goals and the acceptable definitions of a therapeutic relationship, the client or the patient cannot be given the necessary support.

“I have conducted programs for patients suffering depression at the Army Hospital and also for patients with Schizophrenia at the National Institute of Mental Health and have seen significant improvements. Some of the Schizophrenia patients who had been condemned to years of hospitalization and were unwilling to even talk to another person started to actively engage in the programmes.

“There was one person who was always muttering to himself and I recall how he started to converse with others and how his self-muttering behaviour subsided. Those patients, who were like zombies began to open up, smile and converse and to witness such a difference in their behaviour was very rewarding. However, it is necessary for the therapy to consistently continue at least for six months for the effects to be lasting.”

Having understood the importance of art based therapy I asked Dr. Rajitha as to how this intervention could be expanded and developed at the community level. According to her, health care professionals, formal and informal community leaders such as the Grama Sevaka and clergy, could be given awareness and if possible training.

Dr. Rajitha also stresses the importance of introducing these techniques to the education system. “Art anyway has a stimulating effect on the brain and the nervous system. However, if art therapy could be integrated into the school system and if parents and teachers are taught the significance of being non-judgemental when assessing a child’s artistic expression or efforts then it would be much more effective than just assessing or analysing the artistic outcome. Teachers and parents need to be made aware as to how the improvement needs to be monitored at an individual level rather than at a generalized classroom level without comparing or contrasting the work of the children.”

Dr Rajitha emphasizes that all children are capable of learning diverse subject areas when they are young and that it is the way they are nurtured which enables and encourages them to grasp knowledge and understanding. “A child should be seen as a child and parents and teachers need to understand the importance of a happy and contented childhood. For this, adults need to develop self awareness as well as educate themselves of the necessity of psychological and mental wellbeing. Rather than embarking on a search for curative approaches, it is important to consider and implement preventive measures. For an example we need to be aware as to what could cause depression and anxiety in order to prevent those conditions. Art based therapy could be used to develop coping skills and emotional resilience in children as well as adults.”

When inquired as to the impact she had witnessed due to art based therapy, Dr Rajitha responds that the most evident change which has taken place is within herself. “The realization that all things are impermanent and the importance of focusing on the present moment lead to a spiritual change. I also got to appreciate how similar we are to each other and that helped me empathize and engage even more with my patients and workshop participants. The greatest impact was that I got to see that I needed to reduce my own ego-centrism if I were to truly reach out to the others.”

For art based therapy to be developed as a widely accepted intervention in Sri Lanka, Dr Rajitha says that the main limitation is the hierarchy or stature which professionals try to maintain especially in the healthcare sector. If a healthcare professional is unwilling to see everyone as equals then such a person would find it difficult to be a good art based therapist.

Dr. Rajitha also views the rigid academic, evidence-based system that prevails as a hindrance to the exploration and implementation of new alternative methods. Instead of constantly looking for evidence, professionals and researchers need to explore new areas which might give more effective results.

“I would like to stress again the importance of self awareness and understanding the workings of the ego when attempting to adopt techniques such as art based therapy,” says Dr. Rajitha as her closing remarks.

As a practicing artist I felt I have been awarded a rare opportunity to recognize the true potential of art which is usually used to pacify one’s own egoistic needs. Art, I now feel, has far more power when utilised to heal individuals and communities.