Digital art therapy could prove vital for trauma survivors, experts say

Remote method widens access and enables people to explore sensitive topics at their own pace

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Digital art therapy could prove vital for survivors of violence and trauma who cannot access face-to-face support, experts have said.

Using mobile applications, virtual reality, computers and tablets, the technique provides art therapy remotely.

Experts at the Art Therapy Conference in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday praised the technique, saying it makes therapy more accessible.

The digital medium allows for a certain level of detachment, enabling survivors to explore sensitive topics at their own pace and comfort level
Rawan Bajsair, art psychotherapist

“It provides individuals with alternative ways to engage in the therapeutic process,” Rawan Bajsair, a Saudi art psychotherapist, told The National.

“This therapy allows for exploration, expression, and healing through digital artistic creation.”

Survivors of trauma and violence, in particular, benefit from the technique as it gives them a safe and controlled environment for emotional expression.

“The digital medium allows for a certain level of detachment, enabling survivors to explore sensitive topics at their own pace and comfort level,” said Ms Rawan.

Since digital art therapy can be provided remotely, it eliminates potential barriers around transport and physical limitations.

“It can also bolster one's sense of control, foster growth, increase self-esteem and resilience," Ms Rawan added.

Technological barriers and concerns over privacy and online security can be challenging, but Ms Rawan said therapists can mitigate these issues by providing additional guidance, training and resources, creating a secure digital environment and maintaining open dialogue with clients.

Chris Storm, a speaker at the conference and a Sensorimotor art therapist, adopted the technique with a client when Covid-19 restrictions made face-to-face therapy sessions impossible.

Ms Storm said her patient used Photoshop to create a comic strip with characters, scenes and speech bubbles.

The session lasted for 45 minutes and served as a powerful way for her client to communicate her thoughts and emotions.

Ms Storm said the hands-on art processes used in Sensorimotor art therapy can also enhance self-connection and relaxation.

“This approach focuses on the body's role in shaping our sense of self, emphasising how tactile experiences, such as working with clay, can provide self-nurturing and a deeper connection with oneself.”

Helping survivors of human trafficking

The Art Therapy Conference was organised by the Abu Dhabi Centre for Shelter and Humanitarian Care – Ewaa, and involved sessions, panel discussions, workshops and an exhibition featuring survivors' stories.

Traditional art therapy, incorporating drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and finger painting, has been used by Ewaa since its inception in 2008.

“Art therapy has helped a victim of human trafficking at Ewaa who was feeling depressed, lonely and insecure due to the trauma she has experienced,” said Suaad Zadjali, sheltering management section head at Ewaa.

The centre's initial task was to build trust with the woman to help her talk openly, before encouraging her to draw.

“We gave her a pen and paper to allow her to express her feelings through drawings,” said Ms Zadjali.

“We noticed that she was focusing on painting landscapes, a house and children, all the things she missed.”

Although unable to communicate verbally, she could express herself through art, enabling therapists at the centre to help her recover and return to her family.

Powerful tool for healing

“Art therapy is a powerful tool for healing and trauma resolution, and can be particularly significant in the context of the Mena region, where individuals may have experienced various forms of trauma due to conflicts, displacement and other challenging circumstances,” Sarah Shuhail, director general of Ewaa.

She said the conference offered “insights on the healing power of art therapy and its importance in trauma resolution”.

It also enabled participants to share innovative concepts and evidence-based research to help advance art therapy on an international scale.

Ewaa's shelters have supported scores of trauma survivors in 68 cases between January and the end of September this year.

The survivors, from a diverse range of backgrounds, nationalities and age groups, were referred to Ewaa through its 24/7 hotline, law enforcement, social services, hospitals and places of worship.

“All of these individuals have actively engaged in art therapy sessions as part of their rehabilitation and empowerment programmes,” Ms Shuhail said.

“They are aimed at aiding their recovery from experiences relating to human trafficking, violence and abuse.”

Updated: October 19, 2023, 11:41 AM