Chronically ill learn to express themselves through art therapy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am

When a 70-year old with Parkinson's disease was told to draw a picture during an art therapy session, he made a scribble of black-and-white, lifeless trees.

In the next session, he still drew a lifeless tree with no leaves, but with green grass beside it. In another picture, he painted his grandson.

He was one of the 200 participants - all of them with chronic illnesses - of an art therapy scheme organised by the Society for Rehabilitation. Launched last October, the scheme ended with an exhibition of the drawings at the society's Lam Tin centre yesterday.

By drawing, the chronically ill are encouraged to express their inner selves - something that does not deteriorate as their health declines.

'Art is a visual reminder of where they are and what they want to be,' the founding president of the Association of Art Therapists, Julia Byrne, said.

Children used to be the target group of art therapists. But therapists have turned their attention to adults and the elderly. They plan to work with abused children and survivors of domestic violence next.

Art therapy originated in Britain in the 1940s, but was brought to Hong Kong less than two decades ago.

Less than 10 per cent of non-governmental organisations and hospitals used such therapy 10 years ago. Now, Byrne said, 35 per cent had used, were using or had shown interest in using it. The number of therapists in Hong Kong has increased from four to 15 in the past decade.

Byrne said art therapy worked the same way for children and adults: participants learn to trust, to express themselves by drawing and work towards solutions. Adults cared more about how they drew but Byrne said she would explain to them that 'scribbles and marks are just as valued as detailed pictures'.

Teresa, 56, had never drawn before she attended the therapy sessions. The divorcee has suffered from arthritis for 16 years and suffers from periodic episodes of depression. 'All of my children have grown up. I should be happy but I am not.'

In one of her drawings, she drew a big tree with small children beside it. It then struck her that she saw herself as the protector of her children. 'I still saw them as infants instead of somebody equal to me... that's why I never told them my feelings, not wanting to make them worry,' she said.

In another picture, she drew marks at joints to represent her painful body parts and a ribbon on her head. 'Whenever I feel pain, the ribbon reminds me that I am a warrior,' she said.

In the drawing process, participants were encouraged to do what they could to make themselves more positive, Byrne said. The man with Parkinson's disease, for example, was encouraged to spend more time with his grandson.




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