fine print

Art in a Crisis

The day after I was taken to emergency for wanting to end my life, I showed my mum the art and craft section of the residential facility I had been admitted to. Stacks of National Geographic magazines sat side-by-side with tubs of beads, jars of brittle brushes and large bottles of acrylic paints. I was tired, groggy and unsure of my new surroundings, but Mum and I both took this overflowing shelf of colour and texture as a comfort. Here I could be distracted from the dark recurring thoughts I had voiced to doctors, scaring myself as I externalised them. Here—surrounded by psychiatrists, support workers, social workers and care coordinators—I could learn to live again.

Article by:
Play Audio

Despite my love of art-making throughout my childhood and teenage years, I struggled to both make time and feel justified in doing so as an adult. Occasionally I would take a creative class or spend time doing activities in the kids section of an art gallery, but soon enough I’d be consumed with work or social commitments. I was also intimidated of participating in the arts with so few credentials. In her article on gatekeeping and imposter syndrome, Alice Rivard writes that while the control and limitations of these structures may be largely covert, the consequences include putting the creation of art—in any form—on a pedestal for the elite and the exceptional only. As a result, especially for those from marginalised backgrounds, there is “a persistent, nagging inability to believe that [any] success or place is deserved or legitimate”.

It is also easy to fall into the trap of forcing creative endeavours into a ‘side hustle’ or a project with timelines and stress. The endless cycles of productivity and guilt fueled by late-stage colonial capitalism tell us that if we’re not making money, we are not worthy. The bipolar episode that culminated in my admission—brought on in large part by stress from work and financial pressures—forced me to rethink how I approached work. Tying my self-worth to output was ingrained ableism, classist and dangerous: I needed to learn how to play again.

Over the course of three weeks I made collages, experimented with watercolour paint, took two art classes at a nearby community centre, and did more colouring-in than I ever thought possible. I found that when my hands were busy, the volume in my head would slowly quieten. In conjunction with medication and treatment, the pervading thoughts of self-harm and poor self-worth were given less bandwidth when I had something tactile to focus on.

Dr Carrie Barron, Director of Creativity for Resilience at the University of Texas, explains that “meaningful hand use” stimulates the area of our brain which makes sense of the information pooled together through our five senses and “gives us a sense of autonomy and purpose”. It’s one reason why knitting and crochet became such popular hobbies during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020: their repetitive actions allow us to slow down, focus and feel in control despite facing extreme stress. Writer Hannah Turner attributes knitting to lessening her dermatillomania—picking skin until it bleeds, a condition intertwined with her anxiety—by keeping her hands busy and her mind calm.

Before I was discharged there were many discussions about what support I would need to ensure I wouldn’t need to return. (Though carefully and kindly I was told that I am always welcome back, that it would not be a failure or step back if I did so.) It was suggested that I try art therapy: a form of psychotherapy that combines traditional therapeutic techniques with creative play. Perhaps having another form of self-expression would aid my ongoing stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Prior to my first enrolled session of art therapy, the therapist called me to have a chat about how her class was structured. She put me at ease by explaining that her practice is trauma informed: a form of care that acknowledges the wide-ranging impact of trauma and the need for safety and trust between all involved. Her voice was gentle and kind.

My first session was confronting: I was in a small group setting but the new faces, voices and environment was a lot to take in. We began to work on our main piece of work for the term, a papier mache mask. The therapist challenged us to cover our face with strips of newspaper and masking tape to create a base, but I resisted. Instead, the therapist gave me a blank mask from a costume shop for me to cover and make my own. The process of dragging strips of paper through soft glue—using my fingers to smooth them over the rises in the cheeks, feeling the dip as the mask fell away at the chin—connected me to the task at hand but also to myself. I felt a sense of calm in the movement and recognised the power of gentle touch. As a survivor of domestic violence it is difficult for me to accept the beauty of a caress. I am inherently distrustful—I could not cover my face and put myself at risk. But with my face in my hands, I could feel a small part of me recognise that the work it would take to regain my trust would be worth it.

Art therapy unlocking potential for growth is a common experience among frontline workers and defence force veterans. University of South Australia (UniSA) researcher and PhD candidate Holly Bowen-Salter found that “[t]raditional talk therapies are often prescribed to treat PTSD, yet with a massive 70 per cent of military personnel retaining a PTSD diagnosis after such treatments, an alternative approach is needed”.

Art therapist Karin Foxwell works with such groups and her sessions are the subject of Bowen-Salter’s work. Foxwell explains that art therapy “allows traumatic material to be externalised through imagery where the participant can view the content with a measure of emotional distance. This creates an opportunity for the creation of a new and coherent narrative in a safe way.” An Australian Defence Force veteran and participant in the UniSA study agrees:

“Art therapy has given me a way of accessing and understanding my trauma. It has enabled me to express it in a new visual language, so I can actually acknowledge it, see it and work with it. Before this, I had lots of things going on for which I had no language.”

Nine months have passed since I was discharged. When I am anxious and stressed I often turn to crochet to help self-regulate. When I am frustrated with my inability to work or socialise as much as I would like, painting or collage helps me focus that energy into a positive activity rather than self-flagellating. I am still new to art therapy, but I often find myself saying things when I share with the group that surprise myself—the creative play unlocks parts of me that talk therapy has yet to find.

It took a crisis, but the access to that big shelf of art supplies gave me permission to forget all the barriers to the arts I had absorbed in my adulthood. Together with new medications, support systems and ongoing treatment with my psychiatrist and psychologist, I am stable. There is no simple fix—bipolar disorder is a lifelong balancing act. But every time I choose to ignore the gatekeeping of the art world and play with childlike freedom, I unlock a pocket of joy that reminds me why I chose to live.