Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some truly awesome people. I’ve worked with teachers, nurses, psychiatrists, and more. I’ve seen some of my mental health worker friends go on to do some great things. Some have become nurses, teachers, and one has become a psychologist (he started out as a program specialist). I wanted to examine “unconventional” types of therapy, meaning those that you wouldn’t usually see in an office setting.
Today’s post features two of my former co-workers from the same facility. Brenda was a special education teacher who retired in 2017. She was one of the best teachers I’ve ever met and also has been a great friend- during my bad times, I would sit in her classroom and cry. She’s given me lots of pointers in life and is so much fun to talk to. She also has a great passion for horses, which led me to talk to her about hippotherapy.
Ashley was a mental health worker and she shared the same passion that I did for the kids we worked with. I wasn’t able to work with her very long because I left the facility. She’s a very sweet woman, and I was delighted to hear of her becoming an art therapist. I’m always happy to hear when people reach their dreams and move on to better things. When I came up with the idea for this post, I knew she would be the best person to ask.
Thank you, Ashley and Brenda. It means a lot that the two of you took the time to talk to me.
Art Therapy is More Than Just Drawing
Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about art therapy. I didn’t even know what kind of degree is needed to be an art therapist. I know that it is done mostly in groups, but can be done individually. It can also be done in hospitals or in other settings. Luckily, Ashley knows a lot more. I was able to contact Ashley via email due to her busy work schedule. She works at a juvenile correctional facility in Louisville, KY as a Mental Health Professional.
Ashley graduated in 2016 from the University of Louisville with a Master of Education in Counseling and Personnel Services degree with a specialty in Art Therapy. She has become a Licensed Art Therapy Associate (LPATA), Registered Art Therapist (ATR), and Licensed Practicing Counselor Associate (LPCA). She is scheduled to take her exam to become a board certified Art Therapist in September. She has been working in this area since September 2016.
I asked what inspired her to go into art therapy and she stated this (directly from her email):
I graduated from Georgetown College in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. I specialized in studio art throughout my undergraduate studies. The therapeutic relationship with my artwork is what really sparked my belief in the healing components of art making. I was able to use my artwork as a way to express myself freely and honestly. Having an uncensored outlet allowed me to confront grudges of a traumatic childhood and process through mental health issues that stemmed from it.
Artwork was the one thing that challenged me to face my fears and empowered me to overcome them. After doing some research, I was thrilled to learn that art therapy existed AND that there was a licensed profession to boot! There was no question that this was my calling. Here I am, 8 years later, assisting others in finding their own strength and paving their way to freedom.
I thought this was an amazing response, which is why it is directly quoted. Once you find your passion, I’m a firm believer in doing it. Ashley is one of the lucky ones. I have also been lucky enough to live mine, in some way or another. Mine was to help people- over the past decade, I have been able to do that. Some people never find their passion, and that is a very troubling thing.
Art therapists work in a variety of populations and locations. They also work in different art mediums. Ashley works with a really interesting population- incarcerated adolescents. I’ve worked with kids similar to this, and it can be very challenging. She says:
I provide individual and group psychotherapy that incorporates art therapy assessment and intervention. Art therapy assessments are used to gather information, assess their mental state, and determine their mental health needs. Art therapy interventions are used to help clients express themselves and explore aspects of their life that they may have suppressed or struggle to confront. Both art therapy assessments and interventions utilize art media to include 2D and 3D materials. Art media is determined upon client’s presenting mental state and concerns that are being addressed. Art media can range from drawing with a pencil on white paper to constructing large sculptures with found objects.
There are misconceptions about art therapy, and I asked Ashley to address those. Her response was:
The misconception I run into most is that art therapy is viewed as a leisure activity and often discredited. I wish I had a dollar for every time art therapy has been referred to as “art class” or “play time”. Art therapy is one of the most effective forms of mental health treatment because it allows access to suppressed memories, thoughts, and feelings that many cannot or will not express on their own. I’ve had many clients’ artwork that “accidentally” shares aspects of themselves and their lives that they had no intention of disclosing. Often times, these “accidents” expose the true, underlying issues of mental health concern. Art therapy has the potential to break down the walls that reveal that not-so-perfect road that people have detoured. It just so happens that this journey down that not-so-perfect road comes exclusively with color, creativity, and a chance to step out of your comfort zone!
Hippotherapy Isn’t About Hippos
Brenda has a deep love for horses, and she even had one named Billie Jean, after the Michael Jackson song. He was her favorite singer. I had no idea that horses needed a test to be able to be considered for hippotherapy until we discussed the questions for this post. (Brenda and I had a wonderful lunch.)
Temperament Is Important
Horses have personalities just like we do. Some are calmer than others, some listen to commands well and some don’t. However, some horses just know to be gentle with people. A hippotherapist is usually a Physical or Occupational Therapist, and they have assistance from others to encourage both the horse and rider. These therapists have studied anatomy and other areas to know what will be therapeutic for the rider. Riders can go with or without a saddle pad. Sometimes a Speech Therapist is needed to help the rider with speech issues, for example, the child can try to give small commands to the horse as a part of therapy.
Connections Are Made
Brenda has been a side and lead person in hippotherapy sessions, mainly due to her experience as a special education teacher. This means she has led horses and been on the side to assist children and adults as they ride. She currently works with adults with disabilities with tasks such as giving horses baths and grooming. This is done at her barn.
Brenda told me a story about a child that she once saw. *Laura was a child with autism and was non-verbal. She had limited social skills but loved horses. Her mother took her to the country a lot just to look at them. She also spent a lot of time drawing and looking at books about horses. Her mother, however, was terrified of horses. An older horse, about 25 years old, was found for Laura, and she was allowed to ride. After three sessions, she was more confident. She wanted the reigns, was all smiles and seemed more independent. After eight sessions, she got off the horse, hugged her and said, “I love you, Betsy”. Three days later, she told her mother “I love you, Mom.”
When a non-verbal child speaks, it’s a big thing. It’s even bigger when they say “I love you” to a parent.
That shows the power of a horse.
Misconceptions of hippotherapy
Brenda stated that the main thing that she has seen is that people don’t know enough about the healing power of the horse. This is true because I don’t know anything. Most people I know don’t. Special needs children have a hard time expressing themselves, so it is hard to explain it to others. This is very understandable. It definitely deserves more research and understanding.
Would you consider unconventional therapy? What do you think of art, hippo, music or other therapies?