Using Art to Heal

The late writer and art critic John Updike once said, "What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit."

Therapeutic release from emotional or psychological stress is precisely what art therapist Stephanie Levi, M.A.A.T., L.C.P.C., offers Ingalls Behavioral Health patients each and every day.

Professionally educated in both art and therapy, Levi is trained in human development, psychological theories, clinical practice – and the healing potential of art.

"Anyone from young children to seniors can benefit from expressive art therapy," Levi explains. "Creativity is useful and has many applications when applied to solving formal problems or overcoming barriers that can hamper personal growth."

Levi views her job as a unique opportunity to connect with people in crisis, providing them with new tools of self-expression, including art, music and poetry. She prides herself on being able to conduct a 50-minute group session using just about anything. Art therapy, she adds, is ideal for individuals who are resistant to more traditional psychotherapy or "talk" therapy.

"All it takes to get a group talking and engaged is a piece of paper or a handful of buttons, coupled with the right therapeutic modeling," she adds. "They may not even realize that playing with the materials is the 'therapy' until the group sharing begins."

To encourage creative expression, Levi uses an array of media, including pastels, watercolors, colored pencils, markers, clay and torn paper – and it shows. Her workspace is a virtual gallery of bold, bright-colored artwork produced by current and former patients.

"We also create dolls or pillows as comfort items, encouraging patients to think of a prayer or wish to seal inside the stuffing that is meant just for them," she said.

Patients – especially younger ones – become immediately attached to these items. In fact, Levi has seen her patients carry their dolls with them everywhere during treatment – even tucking them into bed in their patient room.

Levi also uses pop culture references, like the popular video game Angry Birds or the television show South Park, in which patients are asked to identify with a particular character and then explain why.

"This provides a non-threatening way to open the patients up to talking about hard-to-discuss feelings," she adds. "Before they know it, they are talking about their families, or what it's like to feel bullied or suicidal. The hope is that patients will later utilize creative expression as a coping skill when confronting the very issues that may have lead to hospitalization in the first place."

Patients respond positively to Levi and her special brand of therapy, giving her high marks on patient satisfaction surveys.

"Patients connect to energy, humor, music and acceptance. I strive to provide an environment that fosters a sense of belonging and reinforce that patients deserve to be truly heard. This experience, itself, is the healing," Levi added. "Groups work because I know our staff supports them. We have to work as a team. A good group depends on the team support in every sense."

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