How Can Art Therapy Help During the Covid-19 Pandemic?
Could the coronavirus pandemic, lockdown, and related losses represent a form of widespread trauma?
Therapist Aisling Fegan examines the impact of Covid-19 and what role art psychotherapy may play in healing the wounds caused at this time
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Surviving this wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a soaring death toll and are now engulfed by a tsunami of mass trauma. Everyone will be affected differently. The Royal College of Psychiatrists thinks that it is “inevitable that once the pandemic is past its peak, there will be an increase in demand for mental health services…” due to “…anxiety or other conditions such as PTSD” (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2020).
In this darkness, handmade rainbows have appeared in windows across the country. With this hopeful use of non-verbal, creative expression, I wonder whether people might be curious about the idea of art psychotherapy at the moment too? Developed by Adrian Hill as a treatment for injured soldiers returning from World War 1, art psychotherapy may prove exceptionally useful as we move deeper in to this crisis. So, what is art psychotherapy and how can it help during the pandemic?
What is art psychotherapy?
Art psychotherapy is also known as art therapy. It is a type of psychological therapy (rather than an art class or hobby) that uses creative practices like drawing, painting, collage, and sculpting to provide an accessible way to communicate and contain thoughts and feelings that are too difficult to express with words alone – sometimes there simply are no words. Art psychotherapy can be helpful for people who are suffering because of trauma, bereavement, stress, anxiety, depression, displacement and separation. Sessions are suitable for people of all ages, and the content of your therapy, including any artwork created, is strictly confidential.
Art psychotherapists are registered with the Health Care Professionals Council (HCPC). Many are now offering their sessions online in response to the pandemic. Online therapy is not a replacement for face-to-face therapy. However, some people chose to access therapy online because of the limited range of psychological services available to them in their local area. This is enabling more people to access art psychotherapy services; like those who are shielding because of Covid-19, working long hours on the frontline, caring for someone living with dementia, or those who are finding a way through more challenging experiences of pregnancy and parenthood during the pandemic. Art making is a fundamental part of art psychotherapy particularly when it is accessed online. It can help us to feel alive and more than just disembodied heads on a screen.
The mental health impact of the pandemic
This crisis is likely to have a lasting effect for many years to come. Finding our way through the pandemic will be a scientific, political and emotional process. There seems to be no clear solutions and with this, we are expected to tolerate prolonged periods of uncertainty. Art psychotherapy sessions provide reliable consistency from week to week. Orientating ourselves within the rhythm of an art psychotherapy process alongside the catastrophic disturbances imposed by Covid-19, can help us to keep going.
Other forms of therapy, particularly those that are based on solution-focused methodologies, often emphasise the concept of resilience. However, identifying a need for resilience has a habit of locating a form of blame within the individual who is suffering. Trauma is outside of someone’s control. It is not their fault. Shock, guilt, blame, anger, denial, shame, anxiety, paranoia and distrust are all commonly experienced trauma-related feelings.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, an acclaimed pioneer in near-death studies suggests that with a loss of many lives at once, “the shock lasts much longer. The denial is much stronger. The anger is more intense and the sadness and depression deeper” (Kubler-Ross & Kessler, 2014, p. 172). It is entirely appropriate to feel these strong and natural emotions. This does not make us weak or in need of resilience. Sometimes all we need is a safe environment, like art psychotherapy, to allow sufficient space to process these feelings the best we can.
The effects of trauma
Widespread trauma consumes groups of people in waves. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry related this to a social contagion of emotion that is amplified on mass (Perry, 2020). For the individual, this may be stirring up all sorts of underlying distress associated with times in the past when we felt frightened, unsafe or powerless. When trauma is happening to us and around us, it can be difficult to see beyond it. It can also be hard to locate multifaceted feelings of distress internally within ourselves. Art psychotherapy can help us to get in touch with those feelings. Art making in sessions is often led by emotional instinct. Being in a creative flow is a sensory, psychological and visceral experience. This process can provide a way of accessing internal dissonance that cannot be explained in words. The birth of a new art object into our external world can also help to gain a different type of perspective on what is happening.
Dr Van der Kolk, a specialist in the field of post-traumatic stress, describes how it is natural to feel helpless in response to trauma. Our thinking can feel out of control when our thoughts are chaotically disorganised. He stresses that we must feel in touch with our minds and our bodies, in order to think with clarity (Van der Kolk, 2020). In art psychotherapy our minds and bodies are present in the process and struggle of art making. Working in the here and now, this therapy does not rely on the ability to recall factual thoughts or memories from the past. It is the feelings that are evoked in art psychotherapy that are important and the artwork captures the emotional essence of each session. This type of anchoring can provide a powerful sense of control and containment.
There is going to be no vaccine for the emotional trauma we are experiencing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and so we must find ways to take care of our minds, our bodies and each other. Keeping socially distant does not mean that we need to suffer alone in our isolation. Art psychotherapy offers a way to safely connect with others, share experiences and contain our feelings during this unprecedented time. I conclude with words from sculptor Anthony Gormley who said “we are all makers; whether we make our bed, make our breakfast, make a bunch of flowers look good in a vase” (Gormley, 2020). You don’t need any artistic ability to make use of art psychotherapy. All you need is a curious, willingness to engage.
Aisling Fegan is a verified welldoing.org art psychotherapist in London and online. You can find her on Instagram @accessarttherapy.
Gormley, A., 2020. Grayson's Art Club, Channel 4 [Interview] (11 May 2020).
Kubler-Ross, E. & Kessler, D., 2014. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. London: Simon and Schuster.
Perry, P., 2020. How to Avoid Spreading Panic in This Pandemic: Philippa Perry's Advice. [Online]
Available at: https://welldoing.org/article/how-avoid-spreading-panic-pandemic-philippa-perrys-advice
Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2020. COVID 19 and Mental Health. [Online]
Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/improving-care/better-mh-policy/parliamentary/rcpsych-briefing---covid-19-and-mental-health.pdf?sfvrsn=39af723d_2
Van der Kolk, D. B., 2020. Dr Bessel van der Kolk on the Global Coronavirus Crisis - Steering ourselves and our clients through New & Developing Traumas. s.l.:s.n.