Art Therapy with Sarah Greaves | Living North

Art Therapy with Sarah Greaves


Image of paint brushes
Living North spoke to Sarah Greaves, a North East-based art psychotherapist to learn more about the world of art therapy
‘Art therapy works on an unconscious, pre-verbal level – people create images and are often taken aback by what they see in them’

What exactly is art therapy? 
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which art materials are used to encourage self-expression and creativity. Because art therapy is not dependent on spoken language, it can be particularly helpful to anyone who finds it difficult to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. The most important part of the therapy, however, is the relationship between the client and the therapist, and how this is used to develop insight and personal development. The image or model produced in the session will usually be discussed with the client as this may help them put their feelings into words, but the main purpose and focus of the work is what happens in the session, and the relationship between the client and the therapist.

Do you need to have any kind of aptitude for art?
You don’t! But you do need to be prepared to have a go with the materials. Usually clients find they grow in confidence as they feel more comfortable in the sessions – we are all creative beings in one way or another.

Who can benefit from art therapy?
Art therapy can help many conditions including depression, anxiety, loss and bereavement, eating disorders, anger management issues, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a particularly helpful way to work with children, who are naturally creative and playful, but who often find it difficult to put their feelings into words, and also those with a learning disability.

How can art therapy help our mental health?
Talking therapies are often very effective when a person is suffering mental health issues. Art therapy works on an unconscious, pre-verbal level – people create images and are often taken aback by what they see in them. Consequently, they learn a great deal about underlying drives in their behaviour and feelings. Understanding and learning about yourself, and why you feel and behave the way you do, within a safe therapeutic environment, can really help bring about change and growth. 

What does a typical art therapy session look like?
I have a large table with art materials and paper ready for the client. I will often prepare special materials for those who prefer a particular media. We usually have a catch-up talk at the start of the session, and then the client works on an image. It can be a new image or object every week, or some have ongoing pieces they are working on. Then we spend the last part of the session looking at, and reflecting on, what has been produced. 

Is there a difference between art therapy with a professional and just practising art at home?
There is a huge difference. Art psychotherapists now have an MA in art psychotherapy. We are all registered with the Health Professions Council, bound by the British Association of Art Therapists Code of Ethics, and have regular supervision. It is a big responsibility (as well as a real privilege) working with someone who is suffering from mental health problems. You work closely together, and have to be very attuned to what is going on for that person, so you can work to help them become healthier. I believe that we all have a natural drive towards health and wholeness, so the work of an art therapist is to accompany and guide someone on that journey, without being intrusive or directive.

Is it possible to see a shift in a client’s mood or behaviour after one session?
Yes it often is. People can arrive looking quite down, but art is inherently therapeutic, so even if there are no great insights, people often just enjoy the art making, and the chance to talk and be listened to.

You offer therapy sessions to children – is it normal to do it one-on-one or as a group session with their family?
I just work individually with children, but it is possible to work with families – usually in an NHS setting.

Does the art produced by a client often reflect their mood or what they’re struggling with?
Yes, or there wouldn’t be any point! Because of the nature of the therapeutic relationship, clients gradually feel safe enough to be more expressive in their work. They are often surprised by what they discover in their own work.

Published in: January 2019

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