Covid: how art therapy is healing mental health issues triggered by pandemic

Professionals and patients merge therapy with creativity to release pent-up emotions

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With mental health under increasing strain after a year of lockdowns and upheaval, people are increasingly searching for ways to care for their wellbeing.

Art therapist Hephzibah Kaplan observed a surge of people seeking psycho-emotional support. She describes therapeutic modality as a form of psychotherapy that uses the creative process for expression, exploration, discovery and healing.

"There are always things that can't be said but which an image can show," Ms Kaplan told The National.

The London Art Therapy Centre set up by Ms Kaplan a decade ago now has a waiting list of clients seeking its services.

“People are grappling with a lot of emotional vulnerability, fears, grief, bereavement and loneliness. We’ve seen an increase in self-referrals, child referrals and returning clients needing psychiatric holding,” she said.

She said there is no quick fix and anticipates that people will need support for some time to come.

Even if people are surviving, she said, they are not thriving. Parents in particular, she said, are struggling as they juggle the demands of home, work and children, as well as the intense pressures the pandemic puts on relationships.

While many used lockdowns as a means of exploring new and inventive hobbies, Ms Kaplan said not everyone is able to tap into their inner resources and that extroverts in particular have found isolation tough.

“Those who don’t know how to reach their internal world, imagination, curiosity or a creative outlet are struggling a lot through this period,” said Ms Kaplan, who shared some of the images of artwork produced during one of her art therapy groups.

"I painted them as the clients were also painting and we sat around the table trying to express the themes and depth of desperation some of the clients were struggling with," Ms Kaplan said.

Carole Kim was looking forward to embracing art after years of struggling with her mental health. After various treatments, she said she had reached a point of feeling better than ever before the pandemic hit.

“There are always things that can’t be said but which an image can show,” Ms Kaplan tells 'The National'. 'Feels like drowning', courtesy H. Kaplan, London Art Therapy
“There are always things that can’t be said but which an image can show,” Ms Kaplan tells 'The National'. 'Feels like drowning', courtesy H. Kaplan, London Art Therapy

With a new lease of life, the British-Asian artist had made a number of plans, including re-entering employment in the arts sector, an industry practically destroyed in the past year.

"When I saw that the pandemic had unilaterally just stripped away the life I was building and I could see no end to it, I fell into a depression which was very much defined by a feeling of hopelessness," Ms Kim, who asked that her name be changed, told The National.

Rather than suffer in silence, she takes solace in knowing she is not alone but can reach out to others.

“I've found it good to gain perspective and realise that everyone is going through the same thing and that my struggles are just as valid as the next person's,” she said.

Because she had already struggled with her mental health, she said she was able to lean on her existing tools of self-care techniques, which included meditation, sleep, exercise and her art. She was also prescribed medication to manage her anxiety.