By Dominique Hunter
Everything I’m about to write has been simmering in the back of my mind for quite some time. How do you begin to articulate your thoughts on a subject as sensitive as suicide? The beginning of this year brought with it a sharp increase in the number of reported cases countrywide. We’re barely into the second month and our nation is gripped by a sense of hopelessness as we struggle to find practical ways of dealing with this situation.
Immediately after those stories were published and shared across social media platforms, the public responded with calls for more counseling services. Most persons would have shared contact numbers for the suicide prevention hotlines in an attempt to let everyone know that there are resources available to them should they need help. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Those hotlines have been around for ages and for whatever reason, they are under-utilized. If this were not the case then we wouldn’t be having conversations about suicide prevention right now. This is not to say that the hotlines are inefficient by any means. In my opinion, it points to something entirely different.
It’s easy for persons who aren’t struggling with that type of depression to say, “Call me if you need to talk about it.” But the truth is most persons don’t want to talk about it, for a number of reasons. For everyone who has experienced some level of darkness in his or her life, there is often a feeling of shame that we all struggle to overcome. We feel ashamed of ourselves for entertaining certain thoughts and weak because we just can’t seem to shake them. The truth is most persons are reluctant to share that darkness with anyone because they are afraid. It is the fear of judgment, and worse, “carrying back” information that force persons to turn even further to themselves rather than talk to someone about it.
No two persons cope with depression the same way. There are those who will call that hotline for help and there are others who would prefer to find their own way of dealing with it (drugs, alcohol, food, or even not dealing with it at all). We need to do more for the persons less willing to talk through their problems since it’s clear that they are most at risk. This is where I think a case can be made for introducing art therapy as a legitimate tool for coping with depression, stress and trauma. There is a transformative power in practicing any form of art repeatedly. Most creative practitioners would confess that at some point in the production of their own work there is certain calming and meditative quality that quickly replaces any anxiety they would’ve had prior to that working session. A shift occurs when their thoughts and energies are redirected away from “self” and more towards the act of “making.”
The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal wellbeing. Art therapy practice requires knowledge of visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms) and the creative process, as well as of human development, psychological, and counseling theories and techniques.”
In fact, the earliest recognized art therapy pioneer in the United States is a New York City native Margaret Naumburg (1890-1983). She is credited as being the first psychotherapist to use art therapy to diagnose and treat mental health conditions by incorporating Freudian psychoanalytics, art, and music into her teaching modules. In 1915 she founded the Walden School, a creative space where her teaching methods could be explored and developed over time. Her contribution to the field of psychotherapy has been profound and is evident in the flourishing practices spread across the United States today.
There is real power in the practice of making art and, in my opinion, there’s a lot to be gained by introducing art therapy in schools across Guyana. Now some might argue that most schools already have art on their timetables so including art therapy would be redundant. However, the difference between art and art therapy is glaring. Art therapy is grounded in theories of psychology, human development, family structures and art education, and is practiced by professional therapists who are equipped with the relevant knowledge and clinical practice. Art and art therapy both have transformative qualities, therefore a combination of the two would further enhance each other’s effectiveness. However, I believe that both art and art therapy should be included in the timetable as separate subjects as opposed to a consolidated subject since they are both working toward two very different outcomes.
Personally I have not heard of art therapists practicing here in Guyana. Maybe we have therapists who occasionally borrow art techniques to help their patients but I doubt that their practice is grounded mainly in art. Regardless, I think the entire country could benefit from having professional art therapists and even a few courses offered at the University of Guyana and/or our other tertiary institutions. Although art therapy services are typically privatized, I think Guyana would be a step closer to changing the statistics by having art therapists attached to our educational institutions since our youths seem to be struggling the most with feelings of depression. Just my two cents.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).