By Scott Frazier, MSC
Manager, Eating Recovery Services
Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination placed on any medium. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as an integrative mental health tool that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Art therapy effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. It is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.
The use of art therapy—particularly mask-making—in a clinical setting can encourage self-exploration in a non-threatening way. I have used masks to help someone who is struggling with self-expression, suffering from depression, or experiencing a ‘freeze’ response when activated. Many residents at Sierra Tucson who are suffering from major depression and low self-esteem forget they have talents. They have placed themselves in social isolation and neglected to enjoy the things they learned in early childhood that supports creative expression.
Pablo Picasso once stated, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” There is nothing like being a clinician and helping a client gain insight into new cognitions for identifying strengths, talents, maladaptive behaviors, and coping strategies; setting new goals; and, ultimately, finding freedom. Art projects create a sense of self-reflection by allowing the individual to look at problems and then place his or her experiences onto an external medium. He or she is able to express and safely explore that which has been weighing him or her down, thus expanding his or her ability to function and express.
For one particular art project, I ask residents who are struggling with expression or depression to get a blank paper mask from our art supplies. I direct them to use art as a form of expression; on the front of the mask, they must depict how they present themselves to others through the use of drawings, symbols, and words. Next, they address the inside of the mask, depicting how they really feel or see themselves—especially in ways that differ from the front of the mask. I encourage them to get creative and have fun with the assignment. After completing the project, residents are asked to share how they interpret their own mask, including images, symbols, and words. This allows each participant to experience and identify his or her perceptions and feelings.
Oftentimes, residents entering Sierra Tucson have learned to change how they feel to protect themselves or manipulate their environment. It is common to see that both sides of the mask are different from one another, and the individual is encouraged to explore the symbolized mask. This is a great way for clinicians to gain insight into what is happening with the client both internally and externally. To unlock the ability to express oneself without going into a ‘freeze’ state opens the door for recovery from trauma or depression.
In one particular instance, a resident had a flat affect and refused to share information. She would disassociate anytime she felt unsafe. She had engaged in anorexia and alcohol—her metaphorical masks—as a means to control her environment and cope with the daily grind of life. As I established the initial rapport, she agreed to participate in the mask project and meet with me once more before giving up on treatment. I was amazed when she came in for the next session, as she had completed her art project immaculately. The outside of the mask was covered in dots, flowers, and green hair covering one eye; words surrounded the flowers and mouth, while only one word was placed near her green hair.
- The words written around the flowers: motivated, honest, helpful, happy, friendly, loyal, trustworthy, connected, leader, love, and quiet.
- The words written around the mouth: guarded and dedicated.
- The word written near the green hair: stubborn.
As she presented her mask, she explained how the flowers represented behaviors that assured others she is OK. When she engaged in these behaviors, she felt like she could quiet down the critical voice from within. She began to tear up as she stated how much energy it takes to meet other people’s needs so she can feel good about herself.
Pointing to the word guarded, she then shared that she had experienced trauma, and how everything that left her mouth had to be evaluated so she could protect herself from harm. As she moved on to the last word—stubborn—she pointed to her own hair, which was green and partially shaven. She had a big smile on her face and said, “This is me! My hair represents that I am stubborn and won’t quit.” What a moment to see a person capture a positive viewpoint and be able to express herself where there was no voice before. As she sat with the emotions, she said, “I feel pride in not wanting to quit.” A magic transformation started to take place and motivation was then explored. She agreed not to give up on recovery and wanted to complete the inside of the mask.
Individuals gain personal insight through creativity and problem-solving. New ways of communicating allow for improved connection with others, and residents develop and rediscover talents and passions. The power of art as a form of self-expression is a gift that can aid in healing and recovery.