By Karoun Chahinian
She was slowly suffocating. Drowning in her endless stream of thoughts and worries.
Every day seemed to be darker than the last and the walls that once held her life together were slowly falling apart.
The moment when Paige Foskett felt as if she hit rock bottom on that hospital bed was the moment she was given a second chance and discovered her passion for dance.
The first time she danced since that experience felt like a breath of fresh air.
Finally free after what felt like a lifetime of darkness, every movement relieved her body of repressed pain and anxiety. Dance quickly became her safe space.
The arts are universally known as a form of creative expression, but in the field of psychology, they have even been recognized as legitimate forms of therapy.
They are a part of most people’s daily lives. Whether it’s through singing, dancing, painting, writing, filmmaking — the list goes on — art is cathartic and is often reached out to in moments of pressure and stress.
But what has changed in the last 50 years is their legitimization as a vital form of therapy for mental illness, formally known as “expressive art therapy,” which Lee Shields has been practicing for 17 years.
“The experience of art-making always helped me so much through difficult times of my life and I also really wanted to work with people, so both my worlds came together,” said Shields. “Art therapy has traditionally only been centered around visual arts, but I branched into expressive art therapy where I move from one art modality to another.”
Shields graduated from the social work program at Ryerson in 1994 and then enrolled in the art therapy program at the International School of Interdisciplinary Studies Canada.
The program touches on different art platforms being utilized therapeutically, but Shields favours movement, voice and visual arts.
She believes that having a close relationship with your client and making them feel accepted and comfortable is just as important as the art-making, especially with her older clients.
“With my adult clients, there’s a reconnection with a part of themselves that wants to play,” said Shields. “We live in a world that’s so structured around perfection that I think this form of therapy is relieving.”
Cassandra Myers, a third-year child and youth care student at Ryerson founded the art therapy program “Art Buddies” in 2014 with the help of Ryerson sociology professor Jean Golden.
She also works at Head Start Montessori school where she leads two-to five-year-olds through sensory art therapy sessions.
“Art has always been my safe place, but I never wanted to pursue a full art degree, that’s why art therapy is just magic,” said Myers. “Especially when working with children, you can reach them without being so evasive and direct, it’s a more holistic option.”
Myers’ passion for art therapy derived from her personal struggles with mental illness and how she used artistic outlets like spoken word and visual arts to cope with it.
“I’ve been predisposed to mental health issues my whole life, but I was always able to cope with them through multiple outlets,” said Myers. “To centre myself everyday when dealing with anxiety, doing anything artistic is so helpful.”
People coping with mental illnesses are often battling with their own thoughts and verbalizing them may feel impossible, which is when Foskett, a fourth-year media production student, turns to dance.
“When I’m dancing as a release, I basically take every negative and destructive emotion that I’m experiencing and use my body to fight them off,” said Foskett. “Sometimes my dancing is very constructive, but other times it feels like meditating. I just let my body do the talking.”
Foskett battled with severe depression at the age of 15 and began to stop eating and sleeping, which resulted in her experiencing a physical and mental breakdown.
“Dance was what saved me,” said Foskett. “I felt as if my world was crashing down and I didn’t have anything or anyone.”
After she began seeing a psychiatrist, she was advised to try different activities to keep her mind and body busy, but felt an instant connection with dance.
Chelsy Dagger, a second-year film studies student, is a musician, filmmaker and visual artist who has coped with depression, bipolar and borderline personality disorder throughout her life. She uses all those different art platforms for healing purposes.
As a filmmaker, she would take darker memories or experiences and transform them into short films.
“My thoughts and emotions from those darker experiences would form into characters and it would make me feel good because I’m able to make something beautiful out of them,” said Dagger.
She was also hospitalized at the age of 15 and said the main thing that got her through it was art.
Laying down in that dreary hospital room with luminescent lights shining down on her, she felt drained.
With a mind full of dark thoughts and images, her hand itched to draw. She needed a release, but was left with nothing. They wouldn’t let her have a fork or pen, worried she may hurt herself.
Thankfully, they allowed her to have a pencil which they had dulled. Notepad in hand, she felt temporary bliss. While it wouldn’t last for long, she was able to escape the clutter in her mind.
“Since then I’ve gone through multiple art phases. Sometimes I’m really into drawing and art because I don’t want to speak. There are days when I’m thinking a lot and that’s when I want to write a song,” said Dagger. “Art lets all your thoughts out and somehow empties your mind.”
Dagger has also participated in many art therapy sessions at the George Hull Centre for Children and Families for two years and at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She said they are most helpful when she can’t find the right words, or does not want to find them, to express what she’s feeling.
While living with mental illnesses may be burdening, Dagger said it is still a part of who you are and not a weakness unless you let it be one.
“Transforming my negative experiences or memories into an art form stops me from demonizing them and letting them drag me down,” said Dagger. “I want people to understand that mental health disorders are hard, but at the same time I hate that people demonize them — they are a part of you and you need to learn to deal with them.”