PTSD and art therapy

picture of sunsetA recent article I read on the war children on Uganda, reminded me of some work my charity, International Rescue Committee did with the war children who returned to the villages. A project used art therapy to help the children express their emotions. What I learnt from watching their work has helped me build upon my skills when working with  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These kidnapped children witnessed horrific scenes of their family members being shot or butchered and then were forced to fight or raped. The lucky survivors were released and were expected to fit back into community life without any support. These children were traumatised and often were unable to talk about their experiences.

Our project found that these children were not ‘fitting back’ into the community, were becoming withdrawn and were having flashbacks of events they saw. Treatment and support in a small African village was limited, including the language barrier! We therefore focused on encouraging children to draw pictures of what they had seen. The pictures were harrowing to look at; however, they started to encourage the ‘war children’ to start talking and express their feelings. We also run small group therapy sessions with the children and their family members so the children could find the words of what they have suffered and enable them to share these experiences.

Transference of skills

I’ve been able to transfer these skills and experiences to my counselling work in the UK and as an integrative counsellor I use some of the techniques I picked up in Africa to work with PTSD clients. This is how I have transferred my skills:

  1. Expressing Emotions: Art therapy encourages individuals to express their emotions and experiences through creative processes. Clients with PTSD often struggle to put their traumatic experiences into words. By incorporating art, you can provide a safe and non-verbal outlet for them to communicate and process their emotions, reducing the fear of retraumatization.
  2. Externalising Trauma: Through art, clients can externalise their traumatic memories, making them more manageable. They can create visual representations of their trauma, making it easier to distance themselves from the distressing memories, and thus, gain more control over them.
  3. Narrative Building: Art can aid in reconstructing narratives and creating a sense of coherence. PTSD often disrupts one’s life story, making it fragmented and incoherent. Art therapy allows clients to piece together their narratives in a way that empowers them to regain control over their life stories.
  4. Non-Directive Approach: Art therapy allows for a non-directive and client-centered approach. This empowers clients to lead their healing process, giving them a sense of agency and control that is often compromised in PTSD.