Art therapy emerged as a mental health discipline in the mid 20th century, out of the fields of human development and education, psychotherapy, and the visual arts. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy employing the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages with the aim of resolving conflicts and problems, developing interpersonal skills, managing behavior, reducing stress, and increasing self-esteem and self-awareness.
Art Therapy is used with a variety of populations. This article examines some of the emotional, physical, cognitive, and social benefits for children and families affected by divorce and separation.
Children have always used art and play spontaneously as a means of coping with stressors beyond their control. As adults, we may find it more difficult to engage in the creative process so freely. But when we do, we are assuming an active role rather than a passive one over our experience.
Divorce and separation are one of the most significant stressors an individual can experience in his or her lifetime. When you make art in relation these stressors, you are practicing the exertion of mastery over an experience that may be otherwise difficult to assimilate. This active response is empowering as it increases your internal locus of control, hopefully providing a realization that you have a choice as to how you relate to your current circumstances. Having choices is empowering! Such boosts our self –esteem and self confidence.
In August 2009, in the New York Times highlighted the effects of divorce and separation physical health, citing research where persons who have recently experienced a significant loss, like divorce from or death of a spouse, report a 20% increase in chronic health problems. The article postulated that the stress of divorce and other traumatic losses can lower a person’s immune response.
Although research on the physical benefits of art therapy is still in the preliminary phase, some of the documented benefits of art making include reduction in fatigue, depression, anxiety, pain, and stress. By lowering stress and anxiety, art therapy may even serve to boost a person’s immune response, and thus combat the suppressed immune response that may accompany divorce.
Art-imagery, especially when created in a therapeutic setting, can provide diagnostic information. However, it is important to remember that imagery is idiosyncratic and it is virtually impossible to diagnosis a person from one piece of art. Parents and caregivers of young children should not infer anything about a piece of art that its creator is not verbally supporting. Still, art making can provide a glimpse into a child’s inner world and serve as a lens to help understand their point of view. Art-making is important communication tool for persons of all ages with verbal limitations or resistance.
The advent of technologies that able researchers to better understand the brain’s process has provided more than anecdotal evidence of art therapy’s cognitive benefits. Research demonstrates that traumatic memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, while our verbal capacity is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. Art making can promote communication across the two hemispheres of the brain so that a person who has experienced a trauma is better able to verbally articulate their experience after expressing themselves through art making.
Group art therapy can help to provide an opportunity for persons who are experiencing the challenges of divorce to socialize as well as provide a safe outlet for self-expression. Art therapy in a group setting may help families that are coping with the divorce and separation process to understand thier feelings and problems are not unique; replacing a sense of isolation with connectedness. Psychiatrist Irving Yalom’s curative factors of groups, the installation of hope, interaction, universality, catharsis, and altruism, may be readily applied to the setting of group art therapy with children and families affected by divorce.
The multiple benefits of art therapy are a frontier that still needs to be explored by those who lives are touched by divorce and separation. For more information on this topic please visit the American Art Therapy Association, http://www.arttherapy.org/.