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  • Mutsumi Ogaki

Multi-colored approaches to mental health

“There are many approaches to mental health care, so I want people to find ones that work the best for them,” said Haruka Kawata, a student art therapist working in the U.S. Discussing one such approach, she talked about art therapy and what it means to her.

What is art therapy?

“There are many different services that address mental health, such as counselors and

psychiatrists. Art therapy is one of these mental health services that integrates art into

psychotherapy. It’s used at alternate levels ranging from individuals, families, couples, and

communities. It can address a variety of issues. Since it involves art, the process of creating

something becomes a source of stimulation to different senses, which targets various parts of the brain that cannot be activated by verbal-only counseling.”

Before interviewing Haruka, I thought art therapy was something that people can do on their

own. I bet I’m not the only one who thought so. Adult coloring or painting with your friends

seems so relaxing, but how is it different from art therapy?

What Haruka calls “self-care art” is the approach to make art for one’s mental well-being,

which is one of her favorite ways to take care of her mental health. However, she says that it

needs to be distinguished from art therapy, which is a psychotherapy service. “It’s the same as saying people who are not doctors shouldn’t call themselves doctors. Art therapy is based on the therapeutic alliance between an art therapist and a client. Art therapists respond to their clients’ trauma, anxiety, and pain, so they need to have adequate knowledge as professionals. So the distinction is necessary.”

Then, what does an art therapy session look like?

“So this process depends on the art therapists. But this is how I usually do my sessions: First of all, I start with a verbal check-in with my client. I ask a question like “how are you doing today?” Sometimes, a conversation about a bad day leads to a specific theme for the day. Other times, I already have an activity prepared for the client. It all depends on the clients. The next step is choosing art supplies. I'll have my clients select materials they want to use, such as color pencils, crayons, or clay. Then I propose an art directive they might want to try for the session. And during the art-making session, I might or might not ask them questions.”

“For example, if it's a client whose goals include anger management, then I might start with a question: What does your anger towards your mom look like? Sometimes I receive an art

response and other times I don’t. There’s always meaning behind what my clients do, no matter how small it seems. So my job is to identify it. A part of the process is to analyze how they respond to my follow-up questions after art-making. For instance, in the case of anger

management, let’s say a client draws pictures that represent his/her/their anger towards the

client’s mother and brother. If one is very big and the other is very small, then I would ask what the difference means. Many people believe that art therapists view someone’s art and judge it. But that’s not what happens. In fact, we help our clients analyze their own interpretation or meanings.”

“I think pain or anxiety represents a condition where someone feels stuck and reaching an

impasse. Psychotherapy can help flow the condition. In the process, it is helpful to use hands

and make something. Pain and anxiety are often invisible, so creating a particular image can

help visualize them. I think we are scared of things we can’t see, so giving them a shape gives us a sense of control. Also, creating a concrete image becomes a visual reminder, and gives people a sense of hope. Making art can help find meanings to their conditions and can make recovery and healing more effective and reduce pain.”

“Trauma tends to shut down parts of the brain responsible for language, and sometimes traditional talk therapy techniques may not be sufficient. One of the effects of art therapy is

that with art, you can approach various parts of the brain that are responsible for vision and

other senses, where memories of trauma are stored.”

European and North American countries lead with research in the field of art therapy, and in

the U.S., it remains to be predominantly white. Haruka, who’s been living in the U.S. since

entering the university, has reflected on her experience of being part of a minority community

as a student art therapist. In November 2020, a book she co-authored Asian Art Therapist:

Navigating Art, Diversity, and Culture was published, which includes a chapter that discusses her experiences and struggles as an Asian, international student, and immigrant in the U.S.

What made you become interested in art therapy?

“Since I was little, I wanted to do something for others, even though I didn’t know what

exactly it was. In high school, I became interested in studying psychology. When I first came to the U.S., I majored in theater. But after my first semester, I wondered if that was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I always loved making art and expressing myself, so I

wanted to connect my interests to an area I can help others, like psychology. Then I spoke to

my advisor and learned about art therapy.”

What are values that are important to you as an art therapist?

“I think the most important thing for me is not to look at people partially but to look at them

holistically. Living in the U.S. as a minority, I’ve had first-hand experiences of intersectionality

that I would've never even imagined having while living in Japan. I'm a woman, Japanese, Asian, and an immigrant, and I realized that there are many intersectional points. I didn’t have experiences like that in Japan because I was a part of the majority. So I think it’s never okay to just focus on my clients’ mental illness and use it to define who they are. Having ADHD doesn’t define you. I want to make sure I look at my clients holistically. Of course, it’s not 100%, but because I myself embody various points of intersections, I feel that I can understand and visualize my clients’ pain or experiences a little better.”

About Haruka

Haruka Kawata-Inglish is a 3rd year graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville pursuing an Art Therapy Counseling degree. Born and raised in Osaka, Japan, she moved to St. Charles, Missouri in 2013. She has worked with individuals, couples, and families to facilitate grief work. She is currently working with students with an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) to address specific social and emotional needs.

Edited by Emiru Okada


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