Prescribing art therapy, yoga, and music lessons is truly a breakthrough for mental health treatment. I want to be completely clear here, this is a breakthrough, but not a breakthrough therapy per se. It is a huge step forward, on the level of readjusting our mental health system, it is really a systems course correction at the root of it. Art therapy, music, etc., all are tested modalities for improving mental health conditions; almost all of them. For chronic, highly disordered and severely dysfunctional patients, this is not a miracle cure. These are, at best, supplementary, tandem, and co-functioning treatment methods to mitigate the severity and intensity of symptoms.
I am not knocking or trying to minimise the importance of this breakthrough. These are not only important modalities in and of themselves, but also support the creativity, independence, and freedom of patients to not only choose their own method of care but also nourish their capacity to carry on treatment more autonomously without being under direct supervision.
Even more importantly, the system is broken, in total if not complete disarray, and needs to be revised urgently if we are to advance treatment at the speed it requires to meet the mental health crisis where it’s at. These new prescribed modalities will not only serve to add ‘person-centredness’ to the paradigm but also new flexibility within the limits of the system.
Even highly disordered patients are extremely creative during their darkest hour. Art therapy, music, and all of these modalities which draw upon creativity and promote purposeful free-flowing ideas are as self-soothing as they are productive in reducing the negative impact of active symptoms.
I can tell you that I have benefited from a music or art group on an inpatient unit in the hospital many times. Some of my fondest memories from experiencing first-episode psychosis in the hospital were singing and dancing to Stevie Nicks, at my request, when I could barely speak from word salad symptoms and was just a few moments away from being transferred to a higher level of inpatient care for unresolved psychosis. But I danced and laughed like the floor was on fire.
Art, music, yoga, all of these modalities are terribly inaccessible to most patients living off state benefits, who are consigned to a life shut-in and isolated in their homes. Aside from ‘getting out more’, these patients simply don’t have the resources to pay for and maintain a connection to art therapists and other more non-traditional treatment in the community. Unless you are connected to a special service or have the best insurance, these modalities simply aren’t an option for most service users and people with a severe mental health condition.
I truly applaud this shift in the systems paradigm that for so long was all about medication and traditional psychotherapy. We really need more of this in countries supposedly promoting better mental health treatment.
I also want to suggest that therapists who practice traditional talk therapy, straight CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can continue to add new self-soothing and proven techniques to their toolkit. I am always encouraging my student therapists to do artwork, let their children dance in therapy. Yes, you read this right, just dance, when the time is right and fits the course of treatment.
We need to get out of this traditional black and white thinking of what therapy is and is not. Therapy is what people need in the moment, to feel and behave in a manner that better suits their goals, chosen lifestyle, and needs. So with this said, why not let a child who is struggling to adjust to a new foster parent, dance in session when he can’t play at home. Sure, not for every session and for the duration of every patient contact, but sometimes, when it will benefit the patient, you just have to do it.
Yes, this is truly a breakthrough in thinking among us practitioners and the higher-ups in our discipline who say what’s what in mental health treatment. It signals that we need to be dynamic, and shift our thinking as practitioners, peers, and anyone charged with providing therapeutic intervention. It is high time we see more of it, from government-sponsored care and any system which is charged with the care of people with a psychiatric disability, or who needs therapeutic intervention to find relief from whatever problem in their life is causing them distress.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.
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