The art therapy helping people with mental health issues

PUBLISHED: 11:40 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:47 25 May 2018

With art you don’t have to have eye to eye contact so it’s good for those on the spectrum, or who are traumatised (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With art you don’t have to have eye to eye contact so it’s good for those on the spectrum, or who are traumatised (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Oleg Rogkov

In some cases a child’s ‘work of art’ can be the perfect therapy to help them cope with life’s difficulties and build healthy relationships

Fighting your way out of an emotional crisis or trauma can be challenging for the most resolute adult. So consider how much more difficult disturbing situations are for children. Youngsters need care and support yet a loving environment is, sadly, not always a reality. Then there are those with behavioural issues grappling to make sense of their surroundings in a daily battle in which internal struggles may escalate to external conflict or distress.

Mental health is something we all have in common. For a minority, however, mental ill health, if left untreated, negatively affects their attitude, relationships, even the ability to function.

The annual campaign, Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May), has prompted me to explore ways in which help is available for the vulnerable. As a result, I’ve headed to the north of the county to meet Cathy McCartney, a personable, engaging art therapist, some of whose clients are just four years of age.

She says: “Many children can’t verbalise, but through art you don’t have to have eye to eye contact so it’s good for those on the spectrum, or who are traumatised. It’s like having a third person in the room with an interesting triangle: the child has a relationship with the art, the therapist with the child, the therapist with the art; they all work together.”

Cathy’s purpose-built studio is light and informal. There’s a small sofa in one corner and at the opposite end a table with inviting containers of coloured pens and reams of paper.

Having always been interested in art, and then training as a primary school teacher, Cathy understood the benefit of delivering art in a therapeutic way. As a result, she took a Masters in Art Psychotherapy, and concentrated on a role which she finds enriching.

“Art therapy is a serious mental health intervention,” she explains. “I am trying to rebuild something that has been lacking in a relationship. Take an extreme example: if a child has suffered neglect such as not being fed when it wanted to be, the attachment with mum isn’t there. A therapist can start forming that attachment so the child can see the possibility of a healthy attachment in a healthy environment. You start from scratch. Once someone has had one healthy relationship, they can build others. It’s like a Russian doll, you’re dealing with the smallest layers on the inside.”

One obvious question for me concerns creative skills – are they necessary for this form of therapy to be effective? But I soon learn the process isn’t about producing appealing artwork. Cathy shows me several images. Even without professional training, the angst and torment is easy to see. “Help, no one loves me,” one states.

“I have children who won’t take stuff home. When parents don’t appreciate what they’ve done, it chips away at their self worth so it’s important they know I respect their image. Attachment issues and deep traumas can go on for many years. I’m helping them get through the next day, keeping them stable.”

Interpreting the product, I’m assured, doesn’t necessarily give the complete story. Cathy absorbs every detail of her clients, from their mood when they first arrive to whether they rush a drawing. The complexities of human behaviour means there is no easy answer, but as a therapist Cathy enables each client to process what has, or is, happening to them, and to express themselves.

Although children are her speciality, Cathy’s training encompasses all ages, including teenagers and those with dementia. On average, clients need a dozen sessions, during which she may use mindfulness techniques.

“We are all permeable,” she smiles. “If you can cultivate the ability to step outside yourself and observe, that can be a healing experience. Relationships are the root.”

As part of her professional commitment, Cathy has been instrumental in organising Milton Keynes Group of Art Therapists which meets monthly in Kingston Library and provides an opportunity for therapists to share experiences and promote themselves. She is also involved with Ivinghoe’s 3b Arts Alliance.

Their Creativity and Wellingbeing Afternoon takes place in Ivinghoe Community Hub on 5 June 2018 with calming, healing and uplifting activities available. Art skills aren’t necessary, just a willingness to engage with materials. The aim is to provide a vehicle for self expression though taking part in arts activities is known to reduce stress as well as increase social interaction.

Given the harrowing experiences that Cathy sometimes hears about in detail, she is remarkably upbeat. Rather than overwhelmed, she appreciates combining her people and artistic skills to breathe life, hope, into others. But she also finds time to paint for herself, every other Tuesday being her dedicated days. In her courtyard studio she shows me a mixed media self portrait. This intriguingly intense composition is just one style at which Cathy excels. Back inside her house there are fantasy like images which showcase the Mische technique plus a captivating painting of her dog, Hector. Meanwhile a dragonfly commission is in the pipeline and she’s also keen to complete another portrait of her daughter.

Having admired her paintings, we sit in the kitchen where Cathy talks about her instincts.

“If I warm to a child, they have a good relationship with their mother. I might gently ask open ended questions. Then they can make a connection to how they are feeling. I do everything at their pace.”

Our discussion continues, taking in self harming, confidentiality (“You have to have trust”) and the appeal of working with clay. Ever smiling as she is, I marvel at how this likeable woman copes with the knowledge of, quite frankly, distressing situations.

“When you have finished a session that’s not the end. You have to hold that person in your mind, thinking about what to say or do next. I have an ability to respond and it’s a great privilege. I’ve found my thing.”

Continual nurturing of our mental health is vital to everyone’s wellbeing. No matter our age, life changing situations sometimes knock us off balance. If you feel that you, or someone you know, are in this situation, get in touch with Cathy McCartney. Her gentle, supportive manner and art therapy skills could well result in a new start.


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