Not all therapy involves sitting in a room with a counsellor and using words to unpack your emotions and thoughts. Sometimes words fail us and we need to try a different angle in order to access our deepest thoughts and heal from them.
Jessica Pietrasanta is an art therapy practitioner that guides her patients through an artistic process by posing a question or a prompt in order to access their deepest emotions.
The best thing about art therapy is you don’t have to be an artist or have any formal training in art in order to use it! An art therapist can guide you through the process and there’s no “wrong way” to do it.
Learn more about Jessica and art therapy here:
Tell me about your professional background:
I am a registered Art Psychotherapist (ANZACATA)and Senior Clinician at Headspace Early Psychosis. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of New South Wales as well as a Masters Degree in Art Psychotherapy from Western Sydney University.
I started my mental health career in 2015 with headspace Youth Mental health service as their first psychotherapist in their team. I continued my work with their team in another program called headspace Early Psychosis where I gained new knowledge and experience working with psychosis, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, trauma, depression and anxiety, as well as a range of other mental health presentations using art therapy as the main form of intervention. I have had the honour of working with clients from a range of cultural backgrounds and age brackets, ranging from children to adults, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and LGBTIQA+ community members.
What made you want to get into this field?
Before starting Art Therapy, I was an artist. My good friend at the time (who was also an artist) had a horrible accident that left him a quadriplegic. I sat with him in hospital for the first 2 years of his rehab where he went through rigorous rehabilitation and therapy. This was the first time I encountered an art therapy and an art therapist. The treating team caught wind that my friend was an artist before his accident and thought it might be a helpful therapy for him. My friend offered for me to come along to a session with him and I was able to witness the powerful form of therapy and communication tool art can be for those living with disability and mental ill-health. This was the moment I discovered that this was the career path for me.
What has been your favorite aspect of this work?
My favourite aspect of being an art therapist is advocating for the many unique and beautiful forms of communication that honour someone’s individual needs. I feel honoured to have been able to meet different people who felt safe enough to share their stories with me through their art and music and movement.
Can you explain what art therapy is and what a typical session is like from start to finish?
Art therapy is a therapeutic intervention that does not rely on the use of verbal communication. It offers art-making as a therapeutic tool as well as a form of communication in the therapy space to unpack emotions, thoughts, behaviours, relationships (and more) in a way that gives the safe distance from the events, traumas and feelings that may have occurred leaving you with high levels of distress.
When walking into a session you will notice the space might look different to your traditional therapy space. You will have art materials available to you, a desk or side table to sit at with your therapist. You may be offered a theme or a question to make art around or you might like having quiet art-making time to start. Art therapy is about meeting you where you are at, and giving space for you to communicate how you would like. The art therapist is there to support you in this process- they are not there to judge your work or tell you how to make a representational image- they are there to honour the process and make reflections with you about it. At the conclusion of the session, there will be space to reflect on your art-making and themes, feelings and thoughts that came up for you in the process. Between sessions, activities will be set before you wrap up to encourage ongoing creative flow in everyday life.
What sort of health challenges can art therapy be effective for and why?
Art therapy can be very helpful for those who don’t always have the words. This can be anyone! I have many people approaching me with the goal to try something different as they have exhausted CBT, DBT and talk therapy options and approaches as they didn’t feel that it fit for them.
I find that people living with complex trauma, PTSD, Schizophrenia or Autism find the art therapy approach to be helpful as they don’t always find traditional verbal therapy to be appropriate for their needs and abilities. Many non-verbal clients find art therapy to be less intimidating and a suitable option for their care.
Art therapy can also be used in physical rehabilitation. The use of art-making tools, art-making materials and textures can be used in the rehabilitation of those who have lost mobility or have sensory issues.
Is there a technique in your practice that you have found to be the most beneficial to the people you work with?
Non-directive art therapy means offering open space to participants without a clear directive/ theme/ topic to create art around. This is a technique that I like to use in session to give the participant choice, control and safety in their process. Having non-directive and free art making space gives the participant space to get to know their process, how it feels in their body and in their mind without the therapist imposing meaning or way of working. While this sounds anxiety-provoking it models the value that the participant is just as much the expert in the room and what they bring is key to the therapeutic process.
What is art therapy like from the patient’s point of view?
Many clients I have worked with have offered feedback that art therapy feels safe, natural, fun, deep, spiritual.
Some new clients of art therapy say that it reminds them of school and making art in class which feels funny at first particularly if they haven’t done art-making in a while.
Some people choose not to engage in art therapy if their worries about making “good art” become a barrier to their feelings of safety in session.
What would you say to someone skeptical about art therapy and its effectiveness? How do you approach that?
When someone is sceptical about art therapy, I offer non-judgemental space for questions and curiosity. This is an opportunity for me to learn too! So, I ask questions and respectfully validate their experiences. Everyone has a journey and a story that informs their lens of the world- I like to honour this and offer as much information that I can to help someone make an informed decision about the kind of therapy that will fit for them. The truth is- art therapy won’t be for everyone and that’s ok! My goal is to have people access supports that are meaningful and relevant for/to them.
Besides art therapy do you have any universal health and well-being tips that you’d like to share?
Your body speaks to you and the people around you more than you know. It’s ok if you don’t always have the words- feel it out in whatever way feels safe for you. Honour the ways in which your needs must be met and don’t let anyone tell you how it “should” look, sound or work. You are the expert of your life, your experiences and your world! There is something so very precious about that!
If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone who is struggling, what would it be?
It’s ok not to be ok! The storm feels loud and out of your control now but once it clears, the sun shines again and the flowers will bloom, the dirt will have washed away and people will come together to support the rebuild. Find the rainbow in the storm and find the people who will celebrate it with you and help you pick up the pieces where needed.
What resources would you recommend? (books, podcasts, websites that you’ve found helpful)
– Book: The Body Keeps The Score- Bessel Van Der Kolk
– Book: Narrative Therapy In Wonderland: Connecting with Children’s imaginative Know How- David Marsten, David Epston
The beauty of art therapy is that it can help you access your own thoughts when you simply can’t find the words. This form of therapy allows you to use your emotions and express yourself freely with no judgement.
Learn more about Jessica and art therapy here:
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