(c) 2007, The Irish Times.
My Working Day
Gerardine Walsh, art therapist, often feels she is acting as a witness to what her clients express through their paintings I am employed with the Health Service Executive (HSE) in South Lee Mental Health Services, as part of a multidisciplinary team that comprises a large range of mental health professions including psychiatric nurses, social workers, psychologists, doctors and counsellors.
This team is community based, so ideally our goal is to prevent admission and provide support and treatment for people in their community and in their home.
I receive referrals from members of the team and this professional contact is not only vital, but it also supports me. My work day usually begins with a team meeting where we discuss patients, after which I prepare the art studio. Usually I then have appointments for one-on-one or group sessions.
The one-on-one session takes one hour while the group takes an hour and a half. I work with a broad spectrum of mental health issues ranging from mild to severe difficulties.
As an art therapist, the image holds meaning for the artist/patient on many levels, both conscious and unconscious. The beautiful thing for me is to sit and be present while people work in a group.
The atmosphere in the room is soft yet focused. If you imagine a child drawing and colouring, there is a bubble of soft concentration. This is what it is like in group art therapy, when patients engage with themselves, totally absorbed in the art-making process and the therapy creeps in all by itself.
The process is non-directive, patients are provided with a range of materials and the session begins with a meditation to ground and centre the group. Part of my job as an art therapist is to put people at ease so that they feel free to use the art materials in whatever way they wish to support where they are. I often see shifts in style or content in a patient’s work. This reflects the patient’s changing relationship with themselves.
Some of my patients like to call this soul work. As I watch a patient work, I often get a sense that they are gently unwinding some trauma from the depths of their soul. My response to the patient is sometimes verbal, talking about their art, the feelings that have come up, their struggles and their own insights.
I support them through the three-pointed therapeutic relationship of the image, the patient and the therapist, to integrate their feelings and, over time, access their strengths. At other times my response is non-verbal – just noticing the movements or the flow of their work. I often feel I am acting as a witness to what the patient has expressed, yet so often images speak for us when words fail or are difficult to find.