Pandemic blues? Online art therapy might help you work through your feelings
No talent? No problem. These virtual spaces are judgment-free zones
It doesn't matter where they are in the world. Most of Michelle Winkel's patients are struggling with the exact same thing right now, and that's anxiety.
"It was a significant problem before the pandemic," says Winkel, clinical supervisor at the Virtual Art Therapy Clinic and co-founder of the Canadian International Institute for Art Therapy (CIIAT) in Victoria. (In fact, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health issues period, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.) But recently, says Winkel, the problem "has absolutely magnified" at the clinic, and the reason should be as plain as the three-ply reusable mask on your face.
COVID's impact on mental health is occasionally discussed as a sort of shadowy bonus pandemic, hitting everyone differently — but affecting everyone, just the same. In May, a crowdsourced study from Statistics Canada reported that 88 per cent of respondents had experienced anxiety symptoms — things like "feeling nervous, anxious or on edge" — sometime in the two weeks before they were polled. And nearly a quarter said they had "fair or poor mental health." (Compare that to a similar survey from two years prior: back then, a mere 8 per cent were feeling similarly meh.)
"Obviously with COVID, life is pretty stressful," says Winkel. Since April, her online clinic has provided support to patients working through their anxiety or depression or stress. And it's one of several virtual resources that offers a space to heal through art.
So ... art therapy? What does that mean exactly?
"I believe that art-making is therapeutic," says Winkel. But there's a distinction between chilling at home with pack of Crayolas and engaging in art therapy. Per the textbook definition on the Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA) website, the practice mixes psychotherapy with art-making. ("Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative process," they say, "thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.") And it's facilitated by a certified art therapist, someone trained in the field at a graduate level.
"Usually clients come because of a pain point," says Winkel. "We may use some art-making to explore that."
Absolutely no experience is required. "They do not need to be artists or feel artistic at all," says Winkel. And during a session, the art therapist might guide a creative exercise. It's not always about making a picture or a painting, she explains. A common prompt might be something like: "Show me what you're struggling with."
"Let's say it's a feeling of anxiety. Well, you could choose an animal that feels like that. Express it in some kind of image."
By making art, and reflecting on the process, the patient is working to get a better handle on what they're experiencing. "For a lot of folks these days, it's about communicating with themselves first," says Winkel. "How can I tolerate the anxiety of this scary, scary stuff that's going on in a way that's a little bit healthier for me?" Insight can change how they're able to negotiate those feelings going forward. And the art therapist's there to guide the process.
"Having someone there to facilitate, to develop a safe and trusting environment to be able to make art is the healing piece, we think."
Is online therapy the right fit?
Art therapy has a variety of applications, but sticking to the example of what Winkel and her team are doing at the Virtual Art Therapy Clinic, she says most of their participants face she calls "daily challenges in living." They aren't arriving with a doctor's diagnosis, but maybe they've been feeling anxious or low or isolated. (The website encourages folks in crisis to seek other treatment.) "It can be as simple and humble as that they're feeling a bit stressed and they'd like a few sessions to explore stress management. And that would be a very suitable thing to deal with in art therapy."
The clinic's sessions are open to both adults and children, and they're led over Zoom by senior students at CIIAT. (So, special art materials aren't required, but a working webcam is.) Before the first appointment's booked, participants go through a free "meet and greet" assessment. They get to talk about their needs and ask any questions they might have. The sessions themselves are offered on a pay-what-you-can model, starting at $10. Continuing with further sessions is up to the participant. "We have many who just come for a handful, get what they need, and then stop," says Winkel.
OK, so where else are people doing it?
The Virtual Art Therapy Clinic is, of course, just one option. To find an individual therapist offering virtual sessions, Winkel recommends searching directories like the one on the CATA website. Or, you could try something altogether different, like an online Art Hive.
An Art Hive?
Yep. They're a network of community art studios that welcome folks of all ages and abilities. The concept originated at Concordia University in Montreal, which runs multiple Art Hives through its campus — and in the Before Times, these spaces would welcome anybody and everybody to gather and create (using a stash of free materials). Since March 20, the Concordia chapters have been hosting meet-ups on Zoom, and at least 21 Canadian Art Hives are currently active online. Some focus on visual art-making. At Concordia, they also run regular Art Hives for music and movement. And while these sessions aren't necessarily presided over by a certified art therapist, Rachel Chainey, national network coordinator for Art Hives Network, says that the project's guiding philosophy is "rooted in art therapy."
Each session has a facilitator, she says, who's there to make everyone feel welcome and free to create. "The Art Hive seeks to bring people together around a common idea, which is creativity and art-making," she says. "Importantly, in terms of mental health, it creates a safety net. People often, you know — not everyone will go to therapy. And not everyone has access to individual therapy or even group therapy, whether for financial reasons, whether it's for cultural reasons. The Art Hive forms a community around a person. [...] There will be a community of people checking on them."
What do people get out of it?
Marguerite Dorion, 76, is a recent Art Hive convert. Pre-pandemic, she was aware of the IRL locations in Montreal, but as a busy YMCA volunteer, she never really took part. Now? "My gosh, it's nearly my whole day," she says, and because the programming's online, she's been exploring Art Hives beyond the city. "It's very casual, very welcoming," she says, and of all the things she loves about the experience — including the joy of painting and learning new things — it's the community aspect that's most important to her. "In French we call it 'en réseau,' which means a link between many people."
Making art with a group, albeit over Zoom, felt novel to Alexandra O. Carlsson when she joined her first Art Hive. But week over week, she says, "you start to recognize faces, and almost feel a kind of camaraderie." A 33-year-old occupational therapist from Kingston, Ont., Carlsson takes part in a virtual session run through the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University. At first, she was there out of professional curiosity. "But I slowly realized that it was actually very therapeutic for myself," says Carlsson. "Every time I finished Art Hive I was like, 'Wow, that was something that I did today that I didn't even know I needed.' Self-care is such a trendy term, but it felt like such a wonderful creative outlet for myself. And it really helped me decompress after a busy day."
"People there, they break their social isolation," says Chainey of Art Hives. "They find a place of belonging. It helps them find meaning. Often creativity is connected to finding purpose, meaning, self worth, feeling proud of oneself. So these are all things that contribute to enhanced well-being."
That last Art Hive ... it's run by a museum?
Yes, some museums host virtual Art Hives, too. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for example, is developing its own online version, and Stephen Legari, the museum's program officer for art therapy, says it should be live in the next few weeks. It'll be the closest facsimile to dropping in on the MMFA's real-life Art Hive — the only one of its kind in a museum. It is, of course, closed due to COVID-19, but pre-pandemic, people were free to make arts and crafts with support from on-site educators and art therapists. Legari says 2,500-3,000 visitors made use of the studio each year.
And beyond plans for that aforementioned virtual meet-up, there are other resources available on the MMFA's website. In the spring, Legari produced a bunch of short videos that lead the viewer through different art-therapy exercises inspired by pieces from the museum's collection. More are in the works, he says, and they should arrive in the New Year.
But are any of these online options a substitute for the IRL thing?
Both have their pros and cons. There are the obvious practical challenges: technology opens these services to people living anywhere, but there are still folks who get left behind. Some people struggle with computer literacy. Others can't afford the right hardware. And beyond all that, maybe Zoom just isn't your thing.
Since May, Winkel's been studying the effectiveness of online art therapy, specifically as it pertains to treating anxiety. Nine therapists have been following 36 clients at the Virtual Art Therapy Clinic. At the beginning and end of each session, these patients are asked to rate their anxiety on a scale of zero to 10, and going off her findings so far, virtual sessions have merit. "What we're noticing is about a 38 per cent improvement from the beginning of the session to the end," she says. "So, it's a very sizeable improvement, meaning that the clients feel a lot less anxious at the end, even if they spend one hour working with someone." The research, however, is still ongoing.
Chainey acknowledges there are some things that are missing from the virtual experience, especially when it comes to her real-life Art Hive venues — community hubs that are crammed with craft materials and artwork. "It's such a rich environment, so nourishing for people's creativity," she says. "You cannot replicate that online, however hard you try." But the fundamental spirit is still there.
"I notice that often people attend an Art Hive because they want to feel seen by others. That's why they choose to come instead of creating in isolation," she says.
"I think that this sense of feeling connected, supported, seen [...] that happens online."