I have a collection of priceless artwork—but it’s not anything you’d find in a museum. The paintings hanging on the walls of my office are tangible expressions of a rebirth of self—postcards from a journey through pain and darkness into light and healing—pretty much the opposite of a still life.
See, I run a rehab facility for teens, and art therapy is one of many experiential therapeutic modalities we offer our residents. These are kids, 12 to 20, recovering from mental health challenges, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors. We’ve found that for teens, art therapy is sometimes more effective than talk therapy in facilitating the processing and expression of emotion.
“In adolescents, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed yet, but the amygdala, one part of the brain that’s responsible for emotions, is hyperactive—which means that teens and children are incredibly curious and creative, but they are not always able to express themselves verbally, especially when it’s about something emotional,” says Heather Senior, LCSW, a psychotherapist and senior clinician at Newport Academy who often uses art therapy, typically as a complement to other approaches.
“Art therapy—whether it’s painting, drawing, sculpture, or collage—taps into their expressive, creative side, so they can process intense emotions in a way that allows that energy to move outside their bodies.”
Art therapy is based on the ideas that visual imagery and symbols are “the most accessible and natural form of communication to the human experience.” The term “art therapy” was coined in 1942 by the British artist Adrian Hill while working with recovering tuberculosis patients, and its use as a therapeutic modality was pioneered over the next decades by psychologist Margaret Naumberg and painter Edith Kramer.
Often, teens’ painful stories emerge over time. “As in any therapeutic relationship, the first picture won’t tell you the entire story,” Senior says. “It’s the sequence of pictures that emerges with each session that creates a much fuller understanding of what’s going on in that child or teen’s life.”
Take, for example, a series of three works painted earlier this year by a young woman named Danii. The first piece, expressing her state upon her arrival in rehab, is dark, with indistinguishable blobs of color. The second, depicting her transition, is painstakingly rendered. The third in the triptych is full of light and movement.
Danii describes the progression like this: “I painted the first canvas with very simple lines to show how fragile and almost robotic I was, with little room for emotion or creativity. For the middle canvas, I made the style more detailed and complex and then let it float up and lighten up into the third canvas. I now want to be more free and colorful and to not have to be a huge, complex masterpiece. I want to simply enjoy myself, my talents, and to let life happen.”
That’s not just Danii’s artist statement—it’s her life statement, a powerful affirmation of who she’s becoming.
There’s also a mindfulness aspect to art therapy that complements the self-expression element. A mind/body connection naturally occurs when kids are in the zone, fully engaged in a physical act of creation. A submodality known as mandala art therapy, in which one colors an intricate geometric design, has been shown to induce a meditative state and significantly reduce anxiety levels.
“While talk therapy can often focus on the past or future, art therapy requires that kids get in their body and focus on the present moment, what’s going on here and now,” Senior says. “Even if the picture references an event in the past, creating something tangible in the moment immediately calms the nervous system. Just using colors they respond to as relaxing will change their mood and shift them out of an overstimulated state more easily than words can.”
Colors themselves can be therapeutic too. Researchers believe that color has a direct physiological impact on the pituitary and pineal glands and the hypothalamus, organs that regulate the endocrine system—which in turn helps control emotional responses.
In her art therapy sessions, Senior might offer specific directions (“Paint a picture of what your internal emotions look like today”), but she never interprets clients’ work for them. “I always allow them to tell me what it means,” she says. “Offering that nonjudgmental reaction to what they create is a huge part of creating rapport and trust within the therapeutic relationship.”
I have a set of two paintings made by one of our residents at the beginning and end of her stay, in response to a request to depict her internal state. The first piece has a colorful flower at the center, but it’s far away from the viewer, clouded in shades of black and caught amid a deep, dark storm of chaos. The second piece is dominated by a heart, radiating rays of multicolored light in the healing color of white.
“The kids who come to us have been using self-harming behaviors to show the world what they are experiencing,” Senior says. “With art therapy, they can show their feelings, their pain, their triumphs, through a modality that’s helpful and not harmful. And, along with expressing their pain, they can also express the things that bring them joy and are associated with a life of happiness, health, and well-being.”