Arts therapies have deep roots, but still resonate today

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Creative arts therapies have roots that go back hundreds of years, but now are being used to deal with 21st-century problems.

“The creative arts go back to shamanic times,” says Lisa Kay, an art therapist and associate professor at Temple University. “A lot of cultures use the arts as a form of healing. The arts emerge as soul medicine.”

More recently, says Natalie Carlton, director of art therapy and counseling at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, creative arts therapies in the United States were rooted in community activism before migrating a few decades ago into the academic world.

Drexel, for example, established its master’s program combining the arts and therapy in 1974.

Michael O’Bryan, a prominent community educator and organizer, has used the arts to deal with issues in neighborhoods affected by violence and other traumas.

”Play teaches empathy and other social-emotional skills,” he says. For youth, “it provides spaces to mess up and try again with adults around them. An art-based environment provides structure and connectivity.”

O’Bryan, who has led workshops on trauma-informed care for a variety of clinical and non-clinical groups, says he takes a public health approach and deals with trauma that affects entire neighborhoods.

He says that the current political environment makes it particularly challenging for neighborhoods with large numbers of undocumented immigrants. “If you’re dealing with a parent who’s likely to be deported, that’s a lot of stress to bring into the classroom.”

Kay says that another trauma that therapists of all kinds now deal with results from shootings in schools and malls.

“We’re all really vulnerable, we really are,” she says. “Kids are always on high alert.”