JEDDAH: Saudi mental health professionals are exploring creative ways to help people with mental health issues.
Art can be a calming activity that some take on as a hobby or make a living, while it can also be part of a therapeutic approach used by mental health professionals to heal and treat those in need.
The stigma of seeking professional help has declined in the past few years in the Kingdom and psychologists, specialized in their own distinct approaches in their therapy, are finding different ways to educate the public. Many are finding that art therapy is gaining popularity.
Art therapy is a specialized form of psychotherapy where practitioners use the creative art process and output to help the client learn about themselves and to heal them.
Anybody who experiences art therapy can readily feel the effect of it, even as lightly as a stress relief technique or to treat more serious mental illnesses.
Rawan Bajsair, Art therapist
Rawan Bajsair, a registered and board-certified art therapist in Jeddah, described it as a playful, non-threatening and non-invasive approach to tap into someone’s psyche.
“Art therapy is super effective. It’s a field that’s very hard to explain in words how effective it is, but I think anybody who experiences art therapy can readily feel the effect of it, even as lightly as a stress relief technique or to treat more serious mental illnesses,” she told Arab News.
She spoke of two cases she helped to treat while in the US early in her career. One of her earliest clients in art therapy was a 55-year-old woman who was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder.
“She’d been hospitalized a number of times and went through different kinds of therapy until she landed on art therapy, which she continued practicing for 12 years. She truly showed me the therapeutic power of creativity and art through her work and experience with this form of therapy,” she said, adding that the success lay in how the client felt protected while having the freedom to express herself.
One of the most significant cases she worked on was with a 19-year-old male, who chose to be called Felix, who she treated in rehab.
She said clients that come to the clinic are usually defensive due to their court mandate. “When Felix first joined my art therapy group he was like most of the clients — none of them really wanted to make art, they thought it was childish.”
After offering some tools and explaining the process of experimenting without any expectation of the product, “some people would just play around with the tools and not actually make anything out of it, and that on its own is therapeutic.”
In the case of Felix, one of the things she offered him was a rubber stamp that printed out jars.
“I just demonstrated how he could use it and I noticed week by week he would place a print on more jars and he would experiment on different kinds of paper and it was really therapeutic at the time for him because when you think about printmaking, you really put the weight of your body into it, and there’s some kind of release that comes with painting that can be really healing, especially for past traumas.”
Felix printed jars that stayed empty for weeks and then would add something little inside the jar every week using different art materials.
“As the weeks went by, I looked at his artwork and I would see him putting his materials in these jars and he’d put some of his graffiti tag names onto them,” she said.
“Towards the end he looked at me and said: ‘So this is a safe space?’ He was talking about the jars and that’s when I got the idea of a whole book chapter that I wrote (Art Therapy Practices for Resilient Youth) about how clients can find safe spaces within these jars, whether its substance use patients or those who suffered trauma, a safe space is one of the biggest and most important component of psychotherapy.”
Educating the public through art is another aspect of using art as a medium.
Shahad Al-Sonare, 27, a clinical psychologist, believes that art is a tool to relay information and get your message across. “I usually draw to express my own feelings, so I decided to express the feelings of my patients. I convey their pain through my art to educate the world on these cases. I’ll be their medium,” she told Arab News.
Over the past two years she has drawn six pieces of art that embody her patients’ experiences, and said she will use the art as a means of education.
For issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities, she has found that by incorporating it into her work she is able to embody her patients struggles in a way that can be understood without the need for words.
In 2020 and 2021, Al-Sonare’s experience of teaching an autistic child in a classroom full of non-autistic children motivated her to raise awareness about autism.
“The school and other teachers didn’t understand his condition; he is actually very smart. It was sad to witness that I was the only one (teacher) who knew that there is nothing wrong with the child’s learning ability.”
“I was his eyes, ears and tongue. I was trying to educate all teachers, admins and principals on such cases. I experienced his pain through this experience and when I drew the autism piece, I wrote, ‘I’m not different, I’m just unique,’” Al-Sonare said.
“I feel like the best way someone could explain psychological cases is through pictures. Just like the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ it’s more descriptive and opens the viewer’s heart to the case,’ she said.