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Express yourself! Wellbeing through art

July 15 2022

When you can’t use words to express yourself, or have challenges to deal with, arts therapies can open the door to better emotional health and wellbeing. Lexy Steel, art therapist at Livability Nash College, explains how and why this therapy is important for young people with disabilities.

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How are arts therapies offered at Nash College, Lexy?

I’m an art psychotherapist and I’m in an arts therapy team with two music psychotherapists. Arts therapy sessions provide a safe, confidential space for students to express their thoughts, experiences and feelings, using creative outlets. We hold individual sessions, small groups and class-based sessions too. When students start at Nash, they have a baseline assessment to assess their needs and how much therapy they might benefit from. So this might be a weekly individual session for 30 minutes, as well as the classroom groups.

Which media do you work with?

Anything and everything! We have a huge variety of art materials – paints, clay, collage – these are useful because many of our students have sensory needs. They might be sensory-seeking, which means they will enjoy touch and texture, or sensory-avoiding. So we work with the materials that are best for those individuals, and adapt as needed; someone who is sensory-seeking would enjoy working with clay or a messy play tray, someone sensory-avoidant uses a covered paint tray to avoid getting paint on their hands. Paint is pretty popular and anything involving glitter! With music therapy, we use pianos, guitars, drum kits, small percussion – again, adapting that to each student’s needs, and making it accessible.

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What do you do with the students’ artwork?

I’ve been at Nash since October 2021 and the previous art therapist held auctions, with all the work framed. I’d like to set up something similar in the future, as well as have gallery events which parents and the public could come to.

What evidence is there for the benefits of arts therapies for wellbeing?

It’s considerable – it’s been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety, concentration and relationships with others, just to mention a few. Many students arrive with a lot of general anxieties and I think that’s where I see the most benefit from creativity. Some won’t tolerate staying in one place for a long time and arts therapies help people engage in activity and with staff. It helps with self-expression because they are accessing a different kind of communication which is especially valuable for our non-verbal students; developing relationships with other people in group sessions, as they all do something together; managing uncomfortable feelings without needing to talk but instead releasing emotions through the artwork or the music. Plus doing something with your hands is a fantastic way to help people focus – a whole list of benefits.

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Tell us about students’ experience in your sessions?

One non-verbal student is learning to communicate in different ways through art as we interact with each other. He doesn’t tend to stay in one place for long but he consistently comes and stays for the full 30 minutes of art therapy, which is unusual. He loves working with clay and is learning to mimic by watching me do something with the material, and he’ll copy it back. This is a form of communicating together. In terms of verbal students, many have problems processing the world around them and often they will use characters to express themselves, maybe from cartoons, in their artwork, that enable them to access and better understand situations and experiences. Last Christmas, we linked the class groups’ therapy to student’s enterprise/work experience learning so together students created tree decorations and wreaths for sale. They were very proud that what they’d made went on sale, somebody saw it and bought it.

Regarding using the arts to process emotions, we recently held a memorial picnic for a student who’s sadly passed and as part of this, I held a creative activity for the family, students and staff so they can remember her together. We used a bright pink board – pink was this student’s favourite colour – in the shape of a butterfly, and painted stones, which we glued to the board to create the butterfly. It’s something permanent that we shared in together, to remind us of that person.

As a relatively new member of staff, what strikes you about the priority Nash gives to wellbeing?

Honestly, I think we all feel it’s incredibly important across the board, not just the creative curriculum. Teachers tailor everything to each student’s needs but in balance with that, they do many activities that bring everyone together. I think this is essential, especially after Covid. Many of our students have a number of disabilities and already can be quite isolated and it’s important that they share and do things together. I’ve seen the cohort who arrived last autumn develop, through both therapy sessions and wellbeing events we do as a whole college.

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