Art Therapy, Mental Health Engagement

by Catherina Brady, December 2017


Hello my name is Catherina Brady and I am one of nine new Area Leads in Mental Health Engagement who are working in different parts of the country....

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I am based in Dublin North City and County (CHO 9). Before I took up the job of Area Lead and since graduating as an Art Therapist from Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh in 1999, I have worked in a variety of roles and settings as an Art Therapist, arts and health practitioner and community art worker with children and adults in Northern Ireland, older people in Kildare and, for 15 years, in the Mental Health Services in Dublin West.

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My initial interest in arts as a therapeutic tool stemmed from my childhood where I saw first-hand the positive benefits of drama and music for a close relation who had difficulties with communication.  As the famous American artist, Georgia O’Keefe, put it: “I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way, things I had no words for.” 

My interest deepened as I used art and creativity throughout my life as useful tools for enjoyment, self-expression and for a sense of wellbeing. Art therapy and the human urge to create have a long history within mental health institutions.  For example, the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn put together a collection of Art of the mentally ill.  Prinzhorn amassed a collection of over 5,000 art pieces from over 450 patients in psychiatric hospitals in the early 1900’s.  Art pieces were found on scraps of toilet tissue, on hospital walls and on sheets.  As a result, there was recognition that art forms were not arbitrary but conveyed personal truths about the patient’s inner world and became the foundations of Art Therapy.

Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy; it is a process by which people can gain a clearer understanding of themselves by exploring thoughts and feelings through the use of art materials. Images can be used to express concerns and emotions that are not quite clear enough to be dealt with in words alone.

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Paranoid Chair by Maureen Buckley

Over the course of my work, I have constantly been inspired by the people I have worked with, their creativity and their use of the arts to tell their story and to communicate and inspire others. Examples of these are too numerous to mention and often due to constraints of confidentiality of cannot be showcased publically. First Fortnight annual Mental Health Arts Festival January is one such public event which showcases, celebrates and challenges mental health stigma through Creative Arts.  Last year as part of First Fortnight, I had the pleasure of facilitating artist, Maureen Buckley, to display and talk about her work in Tallaght Library. One of her pieces Paranoid Chair engages participants to view the world through her lens providing them with insight and experience which transcends the spoken word.

(Note: Mental Health Engagement is sponsoring a drama presentation – A Face in the Crowd - at the 2018 First Fortnight in Smock Alley Theatre so watch out for it!)

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Smock Alley Theatre, 4th Jan, 8:00pm


Art Therapies in Mental Health - Where to next?

There are a number of considerations that suggest to me that further exploration and development of, and research on, Arts Therapies and the role of the wider Arts in promoting and maintaining good mental health.  These include:

  • The recent launch of The National Framework for Recovery in Mental Health which builds on the committed efforts of Irish service users, family members, carers and service providers to develop a more recovery oriented service.
  • Mental Health, Recovery and the Role of the Creative Arts a paper written in 2014 by leading, though now retired psychiatrist, Pat Bracken, in which he integrates and reflects on the paradigm shift towards the recovery approach in mental healthcare and the central role of the creative arts in this.
  • The Report of the Listening Meetings held in 2014.  These were a series of listening events for people involved in mental health services at which service users, carers and family members identified art therapy and arts based interventions as useful and advocated for more of these within current service provision.
  • A Fuller Picture  In this paper written in 2016 by Brady, Moss and Kelly, the authors evaluated an Art Therapy Programme in a Multi-disciplinary Mental Health Service.  The findings included overwhelming support by staff and service users for this intervention,  a discussion on the scope for expansion, identified improvements to quality of life and the role of non-verbal intervention, especially, for those who found talking therapy difficult. 

What’s not to like?  And is it time to move on with Art and other similar relevant Therapies?

(Below are some references for those who might want to take their interest in this a bit further.  These are set out below)


(Catherina Brady is Area Lead for MHE in CHO9 and an Art Therapist)

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