Jennifer, aged 48, is just one among an increasing number of people who are using the arts as a form of therapy. Her compositions, initially bold and violent with images of knives and skeletons, have now evolved into more playful illustrations after having undergone art therapy for three years.

Art therapy is essentially the marriage of psychology and art. Through art-making, participants such as Jennifer can express their thoughts and emotions, and in the process discover more about who they are. In most cases, it can be a private and reflective affair, with the art produced in the process shared only between the participant and his or her art therapist.

The growth of art therapy in Singapore

While the arts has always been used to express and communicate feelings, the field of art therapy only began to formalise in the 1950s. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, medical practitioners in Europe working with individuals suffering from mental disorders observed that these patients often expressed themselves through drawings and other forms of non-linguistic platforms.

This led to the exploration of how the arts can be used as a method of healing, whether in terms of assessing the condition of a patient, or in treatment techniques. The last five years have seen an increase in the professionalisation of the field in Singapore, with the Association for Music Therapy (Singapore) being set up in 2007, and the formation of the Association of Art Therapists Singapore in 2008. At the same time, the LASALLE College of the Arts also started a Masters programme in Art Therapy.

Art therapy is now being used at our public medical institutions, such as Singapore General Hospital, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and the Institute of Mental Health. “Through art therapy, we truly see a change for the better in patients,” said Jane Goh, an art therapist from the Singapore Association for Mental Health. “It’s about helping patients feel competent and confident in society,” says Ms Goh.

How does art therapy work?

In a typical art therapy session, a therapist will instruct the participant to create an artwork, for example a painting or a collage, which expresses how the participant is feeling at that time. Thereafter, the participant is encouraged to talk about what the artwork means to them.

Art therapy is particularly useful for people who have problems communicating traumatic experiences, such as abused children or troubled teens. It provides a safe space for them to express their feelings in a visual and symbolic form. In 2010, KK Hospital’s Psychological Trauma Service began using art therapy to work with children who have suffered from abuse or neglect.

The healing qualities of the arts can extend even further to help those with disabilities. Singapore General Hospital employs music therapy when working with children who are hearing-impaired. Through an interactive music-making experience, this multi-sensory approach to rehabilitation provides a range of benefits including helping the child to internalise concepts and meanings of new words, and acting as a motivational tool in the child’s learning-process.

The increasing popularity of art therapy is evident, with more doctors in Singapore recommending the practice as a corollary to medical treatment. Now, Ms Goh helps more than 1,200 patients a year through her sessions. Fellow art therapist Joanna Tan has also seen a marked increase in demand for art therapy, with a client base growing from just 3 patients per week in 2005 to around 40 currently, with ages ranging from five to eighty-four. Indeed, arts as a form of therapy can truly be for anyone.

For more information on arts as a form therapy, visit the NAC ArtsforLife YouTube channel

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