Art therapy adapting to COVID-19 and helping those in need

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that has become increasingly important during the pandemic. (Leah Guzman)

By Alexandra Elena Todd
Medill Reports

Many art therapists are adapting to the pandemic, approaching depression through art, and helping clients transition to cope with the new normal.

Art therapy is an approach in psychotherapy that uses art to help people express their thoughts and feelings, a mission that has become only more important across the world since the pandemic.

“The art in art therapy could mean drawing, painting, sculpting, sewing, collage-making, writing, music-playing, dancing, and acting,” said Sabrina Mazzola, an art therapist and psychotherapist in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.
Mazzola stated that her clients “need to deal with strong emotions such as fear of getting sick, fear of losing contact, and loneliness.”

Depression and the feeling of isolation have skyrocketed during the pandemic. A study conducted by researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health in September found that the depression rate has tripled among adults in the United States since last year.

Pandemic-related safety protocols have impacted many art therapists and their approach to their therapy. At the beginning of the pandemic, Mazzola said her group therapy sessions were suspended for three months, and she was not able to work. Now, she can work in small groups but with no more than five participants at a time for in-person therapy.

“We cannot share things like theatrical masks anymore because of contamination. We must sterilize every tool used in a session,” Mazzola said.

When art therapists meet clients in person, they need to wear masks. But as Chicago art therapist Jacqueline Carmody explained, that inhibits the ability to read body language and observe her clients’ facial expressions. Essentially, therapy is lost in translation during in-person sessions.

“This is a problem, especially with young children, where a simple smile of encouragement during a session is not available to reassure them,” said Carmody.

Art therapist Tanya Margarita, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, had a positive experience having to resort to Zoom sessions. “I found that some of my clients actually preferred doing sessions online. They find it easier to share when I am not directly in the room with them,” said Margarita.

“Zoom takes a little pressure off. I think my not looking over their shoulder makes it less intimidating.”

Diane Fleisch Hughes, an art therapist at a school for special needs children in Northeast, Ohio, observed that “these children do not adapt well to change in normal circumstances, let alone with the pandemic.” Accordingly, many of her children did not transition well to remote therapy.

Some individuals have stopped going to therapy altogether during the pandemic. “Most older clients decided to stay at home, and some did not know how to use a computer,” said Mazzola.

Art therapists have had to get creative in providing social environments for their clients. Miami art therapist and author Leah Guzman started a community called Creative Soul Society, a monthly art-making group meetup. It is a virtual online gathering to make art focused on a theme. “As humans, we crave human connection,” said Guzman.

Edie Morris, an art therapist in an inpatient hospital in Chicago, said that “building rapport [with patients] takes longer now.” COVID-19 safety guidelines have changed her approach when she is called upon to help them. Referring to the pandemic, she said, “No one has ever experienced this kind of trauma before.”

Alexandra Elena Todd is a video and broadcast reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlexToddNews.