The following long-form culture story was written for “Multiplatform News Room: Projects,” a capstone course examining issues surrounding the cultural arts, during my senior year. This piece can also be viewed on mattersofthearts.wordpress.com, a website created by the students in the class.
A Method to Healing: Deeper Dive into Art Therapy in Athens and Beyond
By Marlee Middlebrooks
Art Therapy: 5 W’s and the H
Clay. Natural found objects. Drawings. Paintings. Collages. These materials and modes have been used to create art, and in the same way, all of them have been used during art therapy sessions. Meg Abbott, an art therapist in Athens, Georgia, defines art therapy as a “modality of psychotherapy that allows clients and their art therapist to use art and the creative process to process their experience or work toward their treatment goals in therapy.” In short, art is used as a bridge towards one’s healing.
Since first beginning to develop in the 1970s, largely in inpatient psychiatric hospitals, art therapy has grown, and its benefits expand to many populations today, according to Abbott. Art therapy services clients recovering from mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues and physical health issues, such as people undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment. Moreover, it is used places such as rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and schools.
According to Abbott, “treatment is designed based on what would be most beneficial to the client and helping them work towards their goals.” Because of this, treatment may look different for various people such as an adult who has just survived breast cancer versus a child who is dealing with behavioral issues.
On the other hand, though treatment can look different, one common goal among sessions is self-expression by patients. Therefore, “cancer survivors and recovering addicts alike can be asked to paint a feeling or create a drawing that speaks to their experience that they can then reflect on,” says Abbott in an email interview. “There are no hard or fast rules in structuring art interventions, as long as they provide a safe outlet to express emotions and can help a client work on their unique goals.”
Art is extremely expansive; hence, a multitude of mediums can be used successfully during art therapy sessions to provide an avenue for people to release their emotions. Choosing it is dependent upon the client and their goals. Generally, artistic mediums may be viewed on a continuum: structured vs. unstructured.
“More structured materials, such as drawing pencils, markers, crayons and sculpture seem to stimulate more cognitive engagement, helping to promote ideas, thoughts and problem solving skills,” says Abbott. “More loose materials, such as clay and paint, are considered more affective or ‘feelings-oriented.’ Use of those materials may help bring to light emotions about a certain situation. Knowledge about these materials and my client’s goals helps me structure art directives.”
Benefits of Art Therapy: “Art therapy offers clients nonverbal ways of expressing themselves and processing their experiences. There are many reasons why it can be beneficial in treatment, including: Emotional Expression: Often, people do not have the words to express their emotions or experience. Art gives them a means to express themselves. Safety: People are taught that art and the therapeutic relationship are safe places to express their feelings. Emotional regulation and coping skills: The creative process itself encourages problem solving skills, distress tolerance and self-expression/soothing skills. Sense of self: The successful creation of a piece of artwork often promotes a sense of pride and a positive self-esteem.” —Meg Abbott
Art Therapy: An Educational Background
The Georgia College and State University’s Master of Arts in Art Therapy was the first program implemented in the state of Georgia for students interested in pursuing higher education in the field of art therapy.
Currently, the program is not accredited. Carrie Elder, Georgia College and State University art therapy program director, is making changes to the curriculum in order to meet the new accreditation standards set by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. She says she is “hoping to start the new program in the fall of 2018 and then apply for accreditation.”
At GCSU, the first year of the program is focused on introductory art therapy courses, learning the theories and practices and engaging in art processes, materials and media used with clients. Additionally, students must finish a thesis where they may complete a qualitative or quantitative study, or they may develop a new directive for the field. Lastly, students must complete 200 hours of practicums and 300 hours of an internship.
“The settings [the students work in] range anywhere from juvenile detention centers, to psychiatric hospitals, cancer wellness centers and the public school system, and they are required to have practicums and internships with children, adolescents and adults,” says Elder.
One reason students must work with people groups of all ages is to combat a misconception that people sometimes think that art therapy is solely for children.
“Art therapists work with children, adolescents and adults in a very nonverbal way. At times, clients can better express thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas visually as a way of understanding themselves and understanding their problems as opposed to verbally,” says Elder. “Sometimes, a verbal explanation of self raises a lot of defense mechanisms and makes it a slower process. What we have seen in the growth of art therapy is that it gets to the heart of the matter a little quickly and more comfortably for clients and hopefully with lasting change.”
Art Therapy: Practicing Ethically
Currently, the state of Georgia has no process for licensure for art therapists. Therefore, someone who wants to be an art therapist in Georgia, for example, may have to get his/her license in another mental health field and then practice art therapy as well. Susanne Fincher, retired art therapist and member of the Georgia Art Therapy Association, says that sometimes people who work in art education or who are professional artists want to work with people and say they provide art therapy, but this is not an accurate claim because they do not have the proper training.
“We’re [The Georgia Art Therapy Association] talking with legislators about introducing some legislation to offer title protection which would bar anybody unless they’ve had professional training from calling themselves an art therapist,” says Fincher.
Generally recognized among art therapists, you must have at minimum a master’s degree in art therapy order to practice ethically confirms Kimia Hafezi, program assistant for the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
For example, Abbott completed her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Georgia and her Master of Arts in Art Therapy and Counseling from Drexel University. Though she is not a “licensed” art therapist because the state of Georgia does not have a licensing board, Abbott is applying to become a credentialed art therapist through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. (ATCB), a national board. Credentialing is not a requirement to practice; however, it is strongly encouraged because it shows that one is an experienced therapist who meets the requirements for standards of education and practice.
According to ATCB’s website database, there are 56 credentialed art therapists in the state of Georgia with some exceptions. Three of these therapists’ credentials have “lapsed.” According to Hafezi, “they didn’t complete their annual renewal. If they remain in lapse status for more than three years, then they become inactive.” Additionally, three are “retired;” therefore, “they are not going to be using our credentials to practice and be compensated for that,” says Hafezi.
Art therapy is continuing to grow in Georgia and in the southeastern United States. As it becomes a more popular field of study, more therapists will gravitate to this region. Until then, you can find a credentialed therapist who meets ATCB’s regulations to suit your needs.
“Art therapy is unique, and it meets the needs of some people who really cannot be reached with verbal therapy—people who have been subject to trauma, have linguistic challenges, don’t speak English or are Autistic can often put their thoughts and feelings much clearer into a drawing, painting or clay sculpture,” says Fincher.” “They can gain deep satisfaction and personal insight when they communicate what their reality is.”
ATCB administers four professional credentials to art therapists. The Provisional Registered Art Therapist (ATR-Provisional)—It is designed for students who have graduated and will be working towards accruing their post education experience hours. Registered Art Therapist (ATR)—You have to meet education requirements and post education experience requirements. Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC)—You can only become an ATR-BR once you are an ATR and once you pass the credential board national exam. Art Therapy Certified Supervisor (ATCS)—You can apply to become an ATCS after you’ve had your ATR-BC credentials for two years and have completed other experiences. —Kimia Hafezi
The following profile story was also written for Multiplatform News Room: Projects, a capstone course examining issues surrounding the cultural arts, during my senior year. This piece was written as a supplementary article to the above story.
Enriching Health of Athens’ Community: Meg Abbott, Art Therapist
By Marlee Middlebrooks
When Meg Abbott walks into work, she may walk into a fictitious world created by a client. A typical day for Abbott could be one where she envisions new stories with children—together, they play out comic book scenes in her small office space, where a variety of colored pencils and paper can be found. One wall is covered in chalkboard paint, so patients may use it as needed. Playing out comic book scenes is something Abbott says is a great opportunity for children to process themselves. Since they are making characters who are going through different issues, they can begin to believe that they are going to resolve their own issues.
Abbott is someone serving her community in a unique way. Though there are many different types therapists, she offers art therapy to the Athens’ community as a method to processing one’s experience. The above scenario is only one example of an art therapy session she may have. Typically, in a first session with Abbott, the client will come in and discuss his or her presenting problems, and together, he/she will work with the therapist to create a plan for their time together.
“With kids, I do a lot of narrative type therapy. That means the kids get a lot of choice in what they make whether they’re drawing, making clay or things like that. Occasionally, there’s certain kids where you make a structured [plan], but for the most part, I give them as much choice as possible with the belief that they’re doing what they need to be doing,” Abbott says. “With adults, it’s a different ballgame because adults have a lot more anxiety about making art work. I have a more tailored conversation. That’s the beauty of art therapy. It can go in a million different directions.”
Abbott sees a variety of patients ranging from children to adults. Some also are people who are on the higher functioning end of autism spectrum disorder. Kate Woods, licensed professional counselor and one of Abbott’s colleagues from Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that Abbott is a “rare commodity.”
“Art therapists are hard to find,” Woods says. “For young children or children or adults on the spectrum who aren’t able to participate in a typical therapy experience where there’s a lot of questioning and talking, I think she really connects with her clients in a different way than traditional therapists are able to.”
Abbott is practicing ethically because she has maintained a Master of Arts in Art Therapy from Drexel University. She has completed all of the requirements to become a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) and is currently waiting on approval from the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. (ATCB). An English major as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, she was unsure what she wanted to do as a full-time career. She had an interest in psychology and the arts, and she thought art therapy melded her interests well.
“I actually had a family member who I found out had to receive treatment and had a really positive experience with an art therapist, so all of that kind of culminated into me really doing my research and trying to figure out is this is what I really wanted to do,” Abbott says. “My junior year, I decided that was the route I was going to start pursuing. I found out very quickly that there’s not a lot of [art therapy programs]. Drexel University is one of the most well-known art therapy programs, so I decided to pursue Drexel after visiting Philadelphia and really liking the program and what they had to offer.”
Meade Armstrong, baker and Abbott’s former roommate, describes her demeanor as one that is open, something that would be necessary for her succeed in her profession.
“I often find myself telling her everything. She really makes you feel comfortable being vulnerable,” Armstrong says. “I easily see how [art therapy] is valuable. I see the value in what Meg does and who she is for other people around her.”
Two years after graduating, Abbott finds herself giving back to her hometown through her own private practice. Originally from Oconee County and having attended college at UGA, Abbott desired to returned to the southeast, but she was not sure if this would be possible due to the fact that art therapy is not widely known or practiced in the southeast as compared to the northeast or west coast.
“I can’t tell you how many times a week how thankful I am for my job and that I even have the opportunity to do this. There are so many moments throughout the week with clients where your heart just bursts,” Abbott says. “It perfectly welds together all of my interests of being able to be supportive and helpful and fuels creative aspects. I just feel very blessed and lucky.”