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Holistic Therapy Day

July 26th is Holistic Therapy Day. Rather than treat a malady as an isolated problem, holistic therapy treats the entire person — mind, body, and spirit. The belief is that an imbalance somewhere in the self could cause distress in another area. For example, prolonged mental stress could transform into a physical illness.

Many of the youth who arrive at CHV have experienced trauma. The impacts of the trauma that young people face, combined with their homelessness, may have negatively affected their abilities to attach, self-regulate, and develop competencies that they need in order to live independently, build healthy relationships, and establish positive coping mechanisms.

CHV uses a holistic, trauma-informed approach that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety and helps youth rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

One element of this holistic approach is art therapy.

In a recent edition of CHV’s podcast, Under One Roof, Marcia, Clinical Counsellor and Art Therapist at CHV, explains the origins of art therapy in the episode, “Finding Healing in Art Therapy.”

Researchers found an intersection between art and medicine that goes back to the cave dwelling days of 40,000 CE. After World War I, artist Adrian Hill opened art space in the hospital for veterans who suffered from what was then called shell shock (PTSD). Hill noticed that those veterans who participated in artistic expression suffered less, overall, than those who didn’t. Additional evidence appeared at that time, due to tuberculosis being rampant. Those affected by tuberculosis who participated in artistic expression recovered faster and seemed to suffer less than those who were quarantined without participating. After WWII, the psychological component came into play and art therapy was born.

Art therapy began at CHV in 2016. At that time, art therapists would take a cart filled with art supplies and set up in a communal CHV space. Now with the dedicated art therapy room in the new building, there is an abundance of light, a view, and studio times are consistent, so everyone knows where and when one is taking place. Participation has increased significantly since the opening of this dedicated room.

The connection between trauma-informed practice and art therapy, at CHV, is that art therapy allows us to express ourselves without language, so youth don’t have to retell a difficult story that could retraumatize them — they can express feelings and emotions without retelling a traumatic story. Art therapy helps the therapists work with trauma that is preverbal — before youth can speak or had the language to express the trauma. Some youth have also mentioned that one-on-one sessions with a counsellor can be daunting, and they find it easier to come to art therapy.

However, art therapy isn’t always about trauma. It’s also a way to focus on the here and now with another person in the room. Art therapy is good for people who are anxious about therapy, because they can focus on creating art while communicating. This process helps youth relax, open up, and explore. It doesn’t matter about the final piece that the youth have created, the healing takes place in the process of creating.

To make sessions more relaxing and inviting, the therapists do what’s called radical hospitality — that is where hosts go above expectations to make guests feel welcome. In the case of the art therapy sessions, youth are welcomed with tea and perhaps cookies or other snacks.

Marcia mentions that there are three stages of healing with art therapy:

  1. The creation of safety and stability
  2. Exploring a narrative
  3. Meaning making

Numbers 1 and 3 are the most important in the therapy process. Number 2 is the client-led stage. It is subjective and individual and depends on the youth — for some it’s going back and reframing the history, for others it’s about having a life that is not defined by their history.

These sessions are also a chance for youth to be in community with peers and creating art in community. It offers the chance for youth to support each other. Marcia said that “we are generally kinder to others than ourselves, and we appreciate the work done in art, by others, and it’s a process where one person can be inspired by another.”

There are three ways that youth can engage in art therapy at CHV:

  1. One-on-one sessions
  2. Closed, focused art therapy groups — these are 6–8 weeks in duration. Youth have to sign up to participate. Recently, CHV held an art therapy group based on healthy relationships. They are currently running one that is an Indigenous-inspired group, cofacilitated with an Indigenous artist — who is also a youth worker at CHV. The focus is on Indigenous art and healing practices. The closed format and duration of the sessions help youth to feel secure around one another and creates a safe space for everyone to share.
  3. Open studios — these are drop-in sessions that occur three times a week at the same time every week. It’s a chance for youth to get familiar with therapists, counsellors, and their peers.

While studying to become an art therapist, Marcia had a breakthrough moment of her own. She was very judgemental about the final pieces that she created. Over time, she came to realize that, “As humans, we are inherently creative, and we’re all creating in some form or another.”

If you’d like to know more about art therapy, Marcia has three recommendations:

  • Art Is a Way of Knowing, by Pat Allen
  • Art Heals, by Shaun McNiff
  • Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert