How art therapy can help us heal

Updated: Mar 25

And strengthen our resolve. And give us a clearer perspective. (Happy new year!)

I’m not an artist. And by that, I mean I can barely even make a decent stick person.

But that shouldn’t stop me (or you) from doodling and playing with art tools to create something. It shouldn’t stop me (or you) from enrolling in art therapy, either.

Thank goodness someone (a few someones, actually) agrees with me. 😊

“The application of art therapy is broad; it can serve people with a wide range of needs and difficulties, and is not reserved for any single diagnosis or situation,” say art therapists and artists Lee Sze-Chin (MA Art Therapy, AThR, LPC), Karen Koh (MA Art Therapy, AThR), and Ng Jue Ann (MA Art Therapy, AThR). ⬇

“Creative expression through art therapy can benefit ‘people of all ages, particularly those for whom withdrawal and low motivation are a concern. It can provide a less intrusive approach for people who find it difficult to express themselves verbally’ (Art Therapists’ Association Singapore). Hence anyone can enrol in art therapy,” they further affirm.

What is art therapy anyway?

And what is it about?

“The term ‘art therapy’ specifically refers to the use of art and creative expression in sessions facilitated by professional and certified art therapists to support ‘personal and relational treatment goals, as well as community concerns’ (American Art Therapy Association),” describe the three.

“To be a qualified art therapist, one must complete their postgraduate, masters or equivalent level with clinical supervision in order to practice.

“There is no one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ art material or activity,” they add. “If a person is using art to connect with their own creativity and improve their mood, they can reference some of the art therapy techniques to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.

“However, if they need a trained professional to process the art-making experience with them, or if they are experiencing serious mental health issues, then they should seek the help of a certified art therapist.”

A big help

Me pursuing art therapy for personal growth is different from someone pursuing art therapy as they undergo a serious situation. So for this post, let’s focus more on the latter, as they and the benefits they derive from art therapy deserve the spotlight. (Although we will pick up a lot of good information here for ourselves too.)

We only need to ask Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann to share their memories to know just how big of an impact art therapy has on people.

“I remember a patient whom I worked with in the palliative ward at a hospital for quite a period of time. We explored both self-soothing and legacy-related work during a number of individual art therapy sessions,” Sze-Chin recalls.

“It made her better prepared to say goodbye to her family members, and she requested that I facilitate a photo-taking session for her extended family. I was honoured and humbled to be able to bear witness to her journey. I was very happy that art therapy was able to help her.”

Meanwhile, “A breakthrough during the few art therapy sessions with a senior male client with physical and mental health conditions became his last words left for his family members,” reveals Karen.

“It was the only image he managed to create fully, which also helped remind himself as a man of generosity and abundance, rather than his difficult temperament.”

Jue Ann herself relates the story of a client in a nursing home. “As she was enrolled in our group session, she found a new outlet to express her frustration and grievances over the loss of her independence, beauty and youth. The sessions empowered her to continue to tap into her creativity and art-making skills to retain the aesthetic lens,” she narrates.

“Eventually, we managed to exhibit her artwork in an exhibition and she was absolutely proud of herself. Subsequently, she occupied her leisure time with painting, and her behaviours of concern were also observed to be reduced.”

An event to remember

Just two months ago, Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann headed When Words Fail: Journeying Alongside Dementia Through Art And Metaphor – an online workshop that was part of The Substation in Singapore’s “we are not going back, we are coming around” programme for Proposals For Novel Ways Of Being.

art therapy workshop
It's a creative space like no other

In the workshop, they showed how art of life journals have supported and allowed PLD (Persons Living with Dementia) to chronicle their journey with dementia, as well as their experiences, memories and hopes. You can check out some of the works at the physical exhibition from 08 to 16 January 2021 at The Substation.

In what ways have the three seen art therapy help PLD?

“I have seen art therapy help PLD find meaning and discover hope, and in the process help them rebuild their ‘lost’ identity,” begins Sze-Chin.

“I worked with a PLD who had lost the ability to speak verbally. Participating in the art therapy sessions, he gradually realised that he could express himself through art-making (via a mixture of drawings and collages). It was a breakthrough for him and his family. For his family, it helped them to cope better knowing that they had ‘rediscovered’ his identity and were able to communicate with him. For the client, he reclaimed a sense of self and his mood improved significantly as a result of the art therapy sessions.”

art therapy
Here's some inspiration

“As I was journeying with PLD and the families, I have witnessed how their engagement in the arts has brought a different lens upon the diagnosis of dementia,” Jue Ann also divulges.

“Many of them experienced helplessness and hopelessness with the diagnosis, and struggled with managing various challenging aspects in caregiving and daily living. With the engagement in meaningful activities such as art therapy sessions, it gave seniors a platform to express and normalise their feelings, reminisce and retain their significant memories, and ultimately use their art to make connections with their loved ones and society.”

Revelations about dementia

From what Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann have seen so far, what is it about dementia and PLD that strike them the most?

“Procedural memories can often remain intact for PLD, especially for those living with early and middle stages of dementia,” the three observe.

“They may still be able to perform familiar tasks, like opening a door, or walking and grasping objects. Hence when planning art activities, we can explore those involving procedural memory more; this way, we can create more meaningful and engaging outcomes (i.e., improve the quality of life and manage behavioural expressions) for PLD.

“Additionally, while there are several theme-based approaches we can embark on when working with PLD on art projects (such as the life journal), it is important to recognise that everyone is unique and has their own preferences and personality – dementia does not take these away,” they emphasise.

“This means there is no single ‘right’ way of supporting a person living with dementia. For us art therapists, it is always the process of getting to know our clients or participants, and meeting or supporting them where they are at.”

"It is important to recognise that everyone is unique and has their own preferences and personality – dementia does not take these away."

But back to the workshop

Through When Words Fail, Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann were also able to demonstrate the use of art of life journals with origami book formats, and notions of the present and future, to help PLD document their thoughts.

And from their experience, the power of a life journal – and origami – can’t be underestimated. “Theoretically, the use of life journals stems from reminiscence therapy which utilises multi-sensory means to aid PLD recall memories,” they explain.

“The use of origami was adopted as it could encourage kinaesthetic movement of folding to aid the seniors in getting warmed up, and feeling enabled to start off with a relatively simple task at the beginning of the session. At the same time, folding is essentially quite a familiar task for seniors in relation to household chores.”

In fact, “The use of life journals as a directive was inspired by an encounter with a quiet senior,” they acknowledge. “He often sat by himself. However, when provided with some image cutouts specific to his era, he opened up to us and started sharing more about his childhood and adulthood. He shared positively about his primary school, especially when an old photo of his headmaster was found.

“Eventually, we compiled his story in a journal, and he often carried his life story journal with him. He is still a man of a few words, but his journal speaks more about his life story,” they continue.

“So the use of a journal carries a portion of PLD’s life journey, and it helps them to use it as an anchor while letting others know about them.”

No journal?

And not too keen on origami? Here’s where the joy of art and creating art, and of experiencing the benefits of art therapy, come in – in that it’s not just limited to a few tools and results. You can go further.

If you or a loved one are interested in doing something with your hands, lifting your mood, finding meaning in simple things, and reminiscing, I asked Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann to list their personal favourite tools for art therapy – and why they can make PLD and even us feel productive or fulfilled, if we’d like to try them.

#1 Crumpled paper artmaking

“Often participants tell us during the art therapy session that they have not done art previously or are ‘not good at art’, so we use this art directive to ask them to ‘crumple’ the piece of paper that they have, and thereafter to find lines and shapes that they can draw and colour in. At a basic level, without any processing in the presence of an art therapist, the participants can experience the pleasure of simply creating or experiencing the art materials,” they point out.

Note: “Art therapy directives presented by an art therapist offer a safe and managed space (the art therapy session) to explore and practice new modes of thinking, and the directives provide both symbolic and creative outlets for thoughts and emotions.”

#2 Doodling with lines and shapes

“This is similar to the previous directive. However, for this, we ask participants to use a tool, such as a ruler, to help them draw at least five lines on a piece of paper that are intersecting one another at any angle. Thereafter, we would ask them to look around the environment for patterns or colours to fill in the spaces that they have created with the lines.”

#3 Watercolour painting

“Material-wise, it allows for more expressive work and provides freedom to explore creation spontaneously. Watercolour has a soothing, joyful effect when one just immerses in watching the process of how colours collide and flow freely. Good to narrow down the choices for PLD: Usually we start with the introduction of the three primary colours, followed by the exploratory process of creating secondary colours.”

art therapy
You can also add other elements and styles for texture

#4 Textile, fiber, yarn and crafts

“(It’s) the ‘making something’ with your hands (and) tactile experiences. (It’s) connected through shared experiences and conversations in women’s group art therapy, which is an overall empowering and slow nature of mindful experience.”

#5 Rorschach ink painting

“Dip yarn into ink or paints, then 'print' it on folded paper. Pull or stretch the yarn in any preferred direction. Oftentimes, PLD will be surprised by the results of the image as it is very organic and aesthetically pleasing. It allows them to know that they can or still do art if they are willing to explore (it).”

Personal effects

These activities sound pretty cool and enjoyable to do.

But if there’s one thing we can learn from these tools and simple tips on art therapy, it’s that being in touch with our innermost thoughts and feelings is important – maybe now more than ever, especially after a year like 2020. Maybe art therapy can also be a way for us to cope and try to make sense of it all, moving forward?

All of Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann's suggestions and experiences above provide us with a fresh start. So will these:

“Art therapy engages different parts of the brain, and I love using art-making to support clients in creative problem-solving, and exploring and expressing their feelings and emotions,” Sze-Chin maintains.

“Some of us (as well as our clients) who have experienced extreme emotional distress, trauma or loss know that sometimes those experiences are ‘beyond words’ – trauma often gets processed and encoded in different ways, and it can be very hard to talk your way out of it.

“Using art as a way to speak the language of the senses, and to transform the experience (of) grounding and centering techniques in art therapy – these techniques and approaches have helped me to cope in 2020.”

“For me, art-making is a contemplative practice to channel and transform chaotic energy,” Karen muses. “With creation comes the visual expression of what goes on inside us, which also translates to the cathartic release of our emotions and tension.”

And according to Jue Ann, “The use of art and journalling helped me make sense of my emotions and thoughts. It brings out the chaos within me, is transferred into paper or canvas, and subsequently enlightens me to take actions that speak truth to my being,” she admits.

“In 2020, it was exceptionally tough for all of us, yet with painting, life got a little easier where I am allowing myself to dive in deeper with the creativity and flow.”

See? We don’t need to be an “artist” to achieve all of that. Listening to Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann, I think even a little bit of art and art therapy every so often might do wonders. 😊

For more on When Words Fail, click here. Check out The Substation’s other programmes too, as well as their Facebook, YouTube channel, and Instagram.

The art therapists have also provided their bios.


Here’s an activity for you to start your art therapy journey, courtesy of Sze-Chin, Karen and Jue Ann from the When Words Fail workshop.

“We developed the mini directives below to capture the essence of the theme of ‘we are not going back, we are coming around’,” they confirm. They are also the elements that make up their ideal art of life journal.

Focus on these issues and questions, and use the tools and advice the art therapists mention in the post to help express yourself.

#1 Past: What is the legacy story that you would like to share with others?

#2 Present: What are you grateful for?

#3 Future: What do you look forward to in the future?

“Subsequently, it is up to the creator to create meaningful pieces with their own narratives that speak the most to themselves. Thus, it is free expression for them to capture their life story,” they conclude.

So what are you waiting for? Get doodling now. 👏

art therapy
And gather your materials, stat