Hong Kong centre draws on the arts to help people with emotional issues

Centre provides psychological treatment using various art forms such as visual arts, music, drama and creative writing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 7:00am

Whenever Tong feels emotionally down, he reaches out for his coloured pens and starts drawing as a way to vent his frustrations.

“I used to go into a panic whenever I felt upset and would scratch the bed or myself. Now I have learnt to use drawings to illustrate people and behaviour I don’t like,” said Tong, who did not want to give his real name.

Tong, who is in his 20s, is among the growing number of people who have sought help from the Hong Kong Expressive Arts Therapy Service Centre, the city’s first non-profit group that provides psychological treatment through visual arts, music, drama, movement and creative writing.

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The number of students who have approached the centre has increased, with the centre receiving 100 of such cases between February and April, up from 29 between last August and October. “We have seen more students coming forward for help in the middle of the term or before exams – a time when they feel most stressed,” said Canna Tang Chi-shan, one of the centre’s four founders and an expressive arts therapist.

The centre, which began operations last August, has helped around 800 people in the past year, including the elderly, adults and mentally disabled persons.

Tong recalled that four years ago, he began to get emotionally distressed because he felt he was being boycotted by his friends.

“I couldn’t focus in class when I was in university. Even when I was doing my exams ... criticisms by others kept repeating in my mind,” he said, adding that his interpersonal skills then were poorer and he would easily get into arguments with others.

Even though Tong had sought help from psychiatrists, who diagnosed him with a mental condition called adjustment disorder, he said it was drawing that gave him a real sense of refuge. “I could express emotions that I couldn’t easily describe in words,” Tong, who began receiving expressive arts therapy in April, said.

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Tang, who has been helping Tong in his therapy, said the process of creation could help a person uncover their potential which could in turn prevent one from harbouring negative thoughts.

Joshua Nan Kin-man, a University of Hong Kong scholar who specialises in art therapies, said a recent report, done by him and the centre, revealed expressive arts therapy was proven to enhance pupils’ confidence. The study, conducted between last November and March this year, involved 30 to 40 emotionally disturbed local secondary school pupils.

Nan hoped expressive arts therapy could be made a regular aspect of social services.

“Social workers rely on conversations to solve problems ... but non-verbal forms could also be therapeutic,” he said.