By Deirdre McConnell on 09 Oct 2019
You may have favourite music or paintings that ‘speak’ to you. You know they ‘do you good’. Perhaps you write poetry, paint, sing or enjoy another art form.
The universal language of Art reaches across time and cultures; through visual and musical forms, dance, movement and drama. Extensive research has explored the role of the arts in promoting and maintaining well-being. In the UK an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched in 2014.
The 2nd International Arts in Healthcare Conference took place from 4th to 6th October in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. The title of this conference: ‘Arts, Creativity and the Global Crisis: Reimaging Identity, Otherness and the Possible’, indicates its relevance to our times. A key concept was that: ‘Art, music, drama and dance are not the peripheral effect that illustrates what is happening in our world, but are core to how we understand, experience and challenge what is happening’.
The conference was organised collaboratively by: the International Centre for Arts Psychotherapies; Brunel University, London; Edge Hill University, Liverpool; New York University; Central & NW London NHS Foundation Trust and the Pratt Institute, New York.
Keynote speakers Professors Thomas Betteridge, Lynn Kapitan and Michael Franklin, Dr Nisha Sajnani and Frances Bronet addressed the themes from a range of perspectives on Arts in Health and the Arts Therapies. Each perspective explored the transformative power of creativity in unique ways, acknowledging diversity and the importance of making connections. One speaker talked of the work as committed to ‘healthy, free and creative minds’, in a ‘free, dynamic and just social body’.
One Education, Manchester UK was represented by myself (Deirdre McConnell) delivering a presentation in this prestigious gathering. Set up in 2011 as a lever for school improvement, One Education has a team of Arts Therapists (ETS) offering Emotional and Trauma Support to schools and other settings.
My presentation was titled ‘Transformative Change: Arts Therapies Impacting Schools’. It was well received and generated much interest in our individual and systemic work in North West UK. ETS’s work has led to many children and young people experiencing positive change in their lives and learning outcomes. Schools have found creative ways, with ETS support, to halt the trajectories of children heading towards permanent exclusion, and to keep them included in school. Work with young people in the Youth Justice Service has led to reduction in re-offending rates.
Conference participants from all continents of the world shared experiences and insights, and attended master classes. Other presentations featured complex work in specific local contexts in: Australia, Columbia, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Middle East, South Africa, Tunisia, UK and USA. There was an atmosphere of high motivation, interest and engagement. Theatre and dance performances in the evenings, and exhibitions of artists’ work, added further interest and enjoyment to what was a fascinating experience. Personally, it was also good to continue discussions with people from various countries whom I had met at the Inaugural
International Conference on Art Therapy Practice and Research, in July this year at Queen Mary University, London. I had presented a paper and was a panelist on the Round Table on Art Therapy in Education at this conference where 700 art therapists from 35 countries participated over three days.
One common theme in the New York conference was the power of each human being’s innate creative potential. Harnessing this in learning environments and in the workplace can produce amazing results. Often there is little or no space for people’s personal creativity and creative interests to blossom at work and in the community. However, if such spaces are made the results can be surprising, opening up new possibilities which can flourish. Within the Ready-made spaces in structures, Spaces-in-the–making can be born.
The interface between the Arts in Health and the Arts Therapies was another theme. The Arts encourage expression and new creative forms of art can express emotions beyond words. We know this when we hear certain pieces of music that ‘move’ us, or see paintings that ‘touch’ us.
The creative process takes on significant additional aspects when located in the context of the Arts Therapies. During therapy, an enhanced level of safety is created for persons receiving therapy. It can be a difficult and complex process to build this safe space in busy organisational structures. But in an increasing number of schools there is enthusiasm and commitment to providing the sensitive logistical support required, so it is possible and well worth the effort. Such safety allows witnessing to take place, both non-verbally and verbally, in supportive, non-judgemental and predictable environments. This attentive accompaniment of individuals and groups leads to the processing of difficult emotions and recovery from trauma, anxiety, distress or other problems.
Work of this kind, including with complex trauma (developmental or relational trauma) requires training and experience. More than twenty HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council) registered ETS therapists do this work on a day-to-day basis, and have worked in more than 100 schools in the North West and a little further afield.
It was a privilege to be able to share the outstanding work of Manchester’s One Education in this international forum.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deirdre leads our Therapeutic Interventions team. She is a qualified teacher, art psychotherapist and experienced clinical supervisor, and leads a team of drama therapists, art therapists, horticulture therapists, dance movement psychotherapists, music therapists, and play therapists.
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