Art Therapy


By Martina Schnetz, EDD, MA, BA, AOCA

Art therapy for mental illnessOver the years we have learned to embrace the common myth of our times and have become disconnected with our basic human needs. The myth that claimed that science and technology, with their endless data and facts, would meet all our needs is now being questioned more frequently. We are becoming more aware that technology and data alone does not nourish our soul. We affirm ourselves through our actions, our voice, and the quality of our dialogue between the world and ourselves. In mental health we have come to realize that we need to treat the whole person using different treatment modalities.

The therapeutic value of art and images has a long history. However, only in recent years the use of images and art in therapy has gained more acceptances within the field of mental health. Research in this area and in neurobiology support what generations before us have intuitively known. Through this research in this area the use of therapeutic imagery is gradually being more understood in how images have a vital function in accessing and linking emotions with narrative through which we can develop understanding and greater meaning. The symbolic realm of the image-making process can provide avenues through which we can get in touch with the greater whole and restore internal and external balance; the bases of mental health. The following dream image explores the power of working with images.

As she walked along the edge of the rocky seashore, her gaze fell upon a beautiful picture that had formed in the layers of mud. She could not quite comprehend how this had been possible. She knelt down to examine it more closely. There appeared to be little physical substance to the picture and its surface was almost water-like in nature. She hesitated for a moment before touching this mysterious image. Small patterns started to emerge where her fingers had made contact with the surface. She became fascinated with the configurations that were created by her touch of this liquid-like substance. The colours and shapes that emerged were so beautiful. After some time of quiet exploration she started to wonder how this strange phenomenon had evolved. She tried to feel if there was a structure that contained this mysterious, ever-changing image. She paused for a moment and then took both hands and reached into the depth of the liquid-like substance. As her hands penetrated into the depth beneath the shiny surface, the image changed once again to create even more beautiful patterns, shapes, and colours that formed powerful images.

She had lost a sense of time while she was exploring this mysterious phenomenon. She was strangely suspended in the action of play and meditation where rational thought had momentarily faded into the background. The world of symbols and play allowed her to become differently connected to her sense of self and her relationship to the world. This transitional space allowed her to become aware of a force greater than her. Within the symbolic realm of this mysterious picture she was able to momentarily discover herself and the mysteries of being in the world. The deeper she reached beneath the surface, the more wonderful and powerful the images became. This playful exchange between the liquid substance, the image, and her actions set off a dialogical process that resonated deep within her soul. It seemed to feed the emptiness inside and it nurtured the core of her being. She felt so alive yet strangely dislodged from the world she knew. She realized that in order to harness the power of this creative energy without being overwhelmed by the waves she needed to bring it alive within the context and social structure of her physical world and within her community. Then she awoke.

The arts are not a self-absorbed, narcissistic endeavor, as they may have been seen in recent years of human evolution, but rather they play an evolutionary and necessary function. The opportunity to reintegrate and connect in a meaningful manner with an image-making process on a deeper level is not only important for artists and the privileged few, but it also needs to be part of everyday life and needs to be embedded in a receptive community and in the greater part of the whole of being. This is important for the development and health of the individual as well as for humanity as a whole.

In my work as a therapist it appeared that in order for me to become sensitized and receptive to the manifestations of the healing flow of images, I first needed to engage in a dialogical process with images that connected me with my own life and with how these images, in turn, connected me with the world, as they had affected my development as a human being. This awareness allowed me to see possibilities for this contemplative, ongoing, dialogical process and to see how images could play different functions within this dialogical process. It was this sensitivity and embodied awareness that I was then able to bring to my work as a psychotherapist. It was from this work with images, experiences, and observations that the Healing-Flow Model was able to emerge, which is described in my book ”The Healing Flow: Artistic Expression in Therapy‬.” I developed the understanding that it was not actually the final image that was essential to the process of art towards healing but rather that it was the dialogical process that evolved and those connections and meanings that were shaped through engagement with the physical world and close human relationships; it was the energy flow, not the static image, that was essential. Out of this understanding I started to develop the different functions that images can play for the person who creates them and for those who see them.

The role that the process of art towards healing can play in restoring inner balance and health are important to reflect upon when working with images. In my work as psychotherapist, artist, and researcher I have seen how images and the unfolding flow of dialogical processes between image and words can take many forms. It is important to note that not all are therapeutic and healing in nature and that on openness and care needs to be taken when engaging in the dialogical image/word process. Within the context of psychotherapy, images can have many different functions. However, the way images can help us in dealing with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses seems to have similar underlying processes that can be greatly facilitated within a therapeutic context.