Article: How Creative Arts Can Help Dealing w/ Mental Illness

How Creative Arts Can Change the Way People Deal with Mental Illness
by Aneri Pattani, Posted: November 5, 2018

Excerpt courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer…



A crack in the wall. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But for Danielle Hark, it was a spark of inspiration.

Six months after giving birth to her first daughter in 2010, Hark, a writer and photographer from Millburn, N.J., fell into a severe depression. Getting out of bed became impossible. Anxiety struck whenever she considered leaving the house. Thoughts of suicide loomed.

One day in the shower, she suddenly felt she couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was dying,” she recalled. “I didn’t need to kill myself because I was about to be dead.”

Hark reached for her phone to call for help, but accidentally snapped a photo instead. Then she noticed the crack and thought, “That would make a good picture.”

“Just that one thought and just that one breath helped me to become more present,” she said.

Photography didn’t cure her depression, but it started her on a journey of recovery — one that she continues today. Taking photographs gets her out of the house, engaging with the world around her, and transforming things that some see as ugly — crumbling paint, cracks in a sidewalk — into art.

Hark has founded a website for photographers affected by mental illness, hoping to raise awareness and encourage others to document their recovery. On Nov. 10, she’ll be sharing her story at the debut of a chamber music ensemble focused on mental health.

It’s one of a growing number of creative endeavors that are bringing mental health center stage. Most of these initiatives — from theater performances to local art shows — aim to create awareness. But for those with mental illness, such as Hark, who stand at the center of these works as performers and creators, the process becomes a path to healing. It’s not a cure, but it provides a sense of control over their lives that can sometimes feel lost.

Research shows that engaging in creative-arts therapy — which can include visual arts, dance, theater, and poetry — can reduce pain and anxiety, help people cope with depression and trauma, and aid in treatments for addiction.

Performing in a play or taking photos is not the same as taking part in creative-arts therapy, said Rachel Brandoff, coordinator of the art-therapy specialization in counseling at Thomas Jefferson University, but “it’s a parallel process in many ways.” Creative-arts therapy involves a trained professional who guides and interprets the work. But engaging in a creative work on one’s own can still help people find purpose, better understand their emotions, and connect with others.

“People can have a really powerful and transformative experience even if it’s not therapy,” Brandoff said.

Over the years, Hark has used…


“I Love My Family” Music Therapy Song Performance

“My Family” was written and performed by Michael Smith, accompanied by Music Therapist Ai Nakatsuka, MT-BC, at our annual Music-Dance-Art Therapy recital showcase in 2016.

This song builds and builds to a wild emotional finish, stay to the end!

Michael has an interesting and touching story that makes his performance in this video all the more touching:

“Michael was placed into our home at the age of 2 months old and by 2 years old was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder. At 8 years old medications he began medications and at 13 he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. That year was horrific for all of us, but for Michael it was heartbreaking. We went through many doctor appointments, interventions, meds, programs, and spending many, many days and nights in the crisis unit at the hospital, battling insurance coverage to get him real help and literally begging anyone and everyone to help him. Then he had a complete psychotic break and was in the hospital for a month. There are not words to describe the hell he lived in at that time… Finally, we found some medications that helped him, but it was not enough for him to remain living in our home. He entered Bancroft and lives in a group home.

Michael started taking piano lessons when he was young but when the bipolar episodes began he had to stop. At Bancroft he began taking music therapy piano lessons. When the music therapist joined CNNH, Michael continued his lessons there and then began working with a new music therapist who had him write and sing some of his own works.

Through music he was able to calm himself when agitated and to come to terms with all that he has been through. Michael’s challenges in life will never be over but CNNH through their wonderful staff will always give him hope and peace in his world.”

-Barbara S.

5 Reasons Music Therapy Works for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Here at CNNH, patients may receive a referral for Creative Arts Therapy services including music therapy, dance/movement therapy and art therapy. Specifically, Music Therapy is an established health profession that is increasingly recognized for its ability to aid in the treatment of individuals with neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, Anxiety and Mood disorders, and Traumatic Brain Injuries.

It’s a no-brainer that music is non-threatening, motivating, and fun. People engage in music every day, but many overlook just how powerful of a tool music really is…

1. Music has a Profound Impact on the Brain

“Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music,” – Oliver Sacks, M.D.

“The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music.” -Michael Thaut, Ph.D, Professor of Music and Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado State University

Our brains are readily equipped to respond to music! Research has revealed that music stimulates all areas of the brain. Because of this, music directly affects our senses, making it a multi-sensory experience, involving the auditory, visual, and tactile senses. As a result, music can have a direct impact on an individual’s physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Neurologic music therapy has shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with neurological disorders because research has shown that music enhances neuroplasticity in the brain. Neuroplasticity refers to the natural ability of our brain to change, the ability for it to create new neural pathways in order to adapt to changes. Enhancing neuroplasticity through music can aid in helping patients who suffer from language, cognitive, and motor deficits by using rhythm, melody, and other musical elements to stimulate non-damaged brain areas and promote brain recovery.

2. Music Increases Dopamine Production in our Brains

Dopamine, sometimes known as a “motivation molecule”, is a pleasure-related neurotransmitter in the brain that is released when our senses are stimulated. Music listening, art-making, and eating good food are all examples of positive experiences that stimulate our senses, and trigger the release of dopamine as a reward and reinforcement for appropriate responses to certain stimuli. Research has shown that low dopamine levels are associated with poor attention skills, memory, and self-control. In fact, dopamine levels have found to be deficient in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and ADHD. Music therapy can be an effective treatment for these individuals, increasing dopamine production, and aiding in improving mood, enhancing learning and focus, and promoting overall well being.

3. Music Provides an Outlet

Music taps into our emotions and creates a non-threatening, non-invasive atmosphere where individuals are provided an outlet to be creative, have opportunities for control over their environment, be social, and express their emotions. As a result, children and adults who suffer from anxiety and mood disorders may benefit from music therapy to improve coping skills, reduce anxiety, improve self-regulation, self-esteem, self-awareness, and increase their verbal and non-verbal expression of feelings.

Examples of music therapy interventions might be:

♪ facilitating song writing with a patient who suffers from anxiety due to a particular fear, to help them become more aware of their feelings and have a better understanding of their fears and emotions.

♪ facilitating a relaxation intervention such as MAR (music assisted relaxation) or PMR (progressive music relaxation) to reduce tension and anxiety and improve self-regulation.

♪ facilitating improvisational music making with various instruments to prompt creativity, exploration, nonverbal expression, and opportunities to control their environment.

4. Music Provides Structure

Music provides a structured beginning, middle, and end that is appeasing to our brains! It provides predictable and organized outcomes through steady rhythm, melodic phrases, and form. Structure and familiarity through music can be very soothing and coordinating for the brain. Because of this structure, music therapy interventions can be beneficial for individuals with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder by providing music to encourage relaxation, promote self-regulation, reduce hyperactivity, adjust to changes and transitions, and improve attention.

5. Music Encourages Communication

Music therapy can be used for the treatment of voice, speech, and language. Singing and speech are interconnected, sharing similar roles and foundation in our brains. In fact, when we speak, we naturally use musical elements such as rhythm, tempo, and pitch. Music Therapy can be an effective tool in encouraging communication in individuals with various diagnoses including ASD, Stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and more.

For example, an individual may be diagnosed with Aphasia after suffering from a stroke (damage to the parts of the brain that control language). Neurologic Music Therapy techniques can facilitate relearning how to speak through the power of song.

Further Reading
Thaut, M. (2005). Rhythm, music, and the brain: Scientific foundations and clinical applications. New York: Routledge.
Stegemoller, E. L. (2014). Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model of Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 211-227. doi:10.1093/jmt/thu023

Using Creative Arts in Therapy

In this WEBINAR, CNNH Director of Creative Arts programs and Board-Certified Music Therapist, Kathleen Nace, NMT-BC, introduces and describes how Creative Arts Therapy modalities: Music, Dance, and Art Therapies can contribute to patient therapeutic progress.

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10 Ways Art Therapy Can Improve Your Mood

Patients who receive a neurological or neuropsychological evaluation from a CNNH expert may receive a treatment recommendation for Creative Arts Therapy, including: music therapy, dance/movement therapy or art therapy. Some might think this a curious treatment option coming from a brain health expert, but, in fact, Art Therapy is internationally recognized as an intervention for a wide range of clinical diagnoses, including (but not limited to): ADHD / cognitive disorders and dementia / autism spectrum disorders / epilepsy / anxiety and mood disorders / trauma-related disorders / PTSD / traumatic brain injury.

Modalities for this therapeutic intervention are selected based on each individuals’ interests, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, collage and much more! Consider these ways Art Therapy might improve the mood of someone you love…

  • Helps re-activate pleasure centers in the brain
    Experiences that engage the senses, such as art-making can activate the release of pleasure-related neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, reinforcing art as a mood-enhancing experience.
  • Boosts self-esteem and promote sense of self-worth
    Making an artistic creation in real space can reinforce confidence in abilities and skills that can then translate to other situations and settings outside of art therapy. Seeing a physical product that you have created with your own two hands can encourage feelings of self-worth and control over your environment.
  • Reduces physical stress and tension by serving as a cathartic outlet
    The physical manipulation of media, such as clay or painting, can relieve tension. Both fine and gross motor movements utilizing art media can be powerful in discharging energy in the body and inducing a sense of calming relief.
  • Provides space for externalizing inner experiences
    Inner experiences are sometimes difficult to articulate with words. Art making allows an individual to externalize inner feelings and may bring greater awareness to an individual of how they are feeling at any given moment.
  • Creates a sense of purpose and mastery, control over environment
    Art can be a purposeful task that allows an individual to exert control over choices in the form of art media.
  • Creates opportunity to engage with others in non-threatening way
    Art can serve as a shared space between two people. Art can help those with mood concerns by engaging them with others in an indirect manner and may feel less intrusive than other forms of therapeutic engagement.
  • Facilitates self-reflection: learning about unknown strengths, building upon existing strengths
    Many individuals find that they are more capable in creative expression than they once believed, and may even discover new abilities or talents they were previously unaware they had.
  • Enhances communication: can express visually in pictures what may be challenging or frustrating to express with words
    Some experiences are difficult to communicate with verbal language. By expressing feelings, events, challenges, and triumphs through art, individuals can more easily express what is occurring within and around them. Art can be a non-verbal vehicle for communication and connection to others, as well as a catalyst for verbal communication and expression.
  • Increases social support through shared art experiences
    By participating in a group art experience, or even simply sharing art with others such as parents, caregivers, siblings, friends, colleagues, etc., individuals can build up their social supports. During times of stress or depression, these social supports can assist in resiliency and help the individual to manage symptoms more adaptively.
  • Encourages healthy habits such as regular self-care and self-awareness
    Developing regular engagement with visual art-making can serve as a powerful tool in becoming self-aware and in knowing when self-care techniques are important to use.

Proactive Parenting: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Generalize Skills Outside of Therapy

Having a child changes your life forever. As a new parent, you are learning of the unique responsibilities, emotions, and experiences that parenting brings. Though parenting can bring rich fulfillment and beauty, it can also bring challenges, especially when you have a child with special needs. Placing your child in therapy can optimize their development while setting them up for success in the world. However, you may have so many questions such as:

How and why are my actions affecting my child’s development?

What can I do to help?

As a Board Certified Music Therapist, I’ve witnessed how therapy impacts my clients in a variety of ways, some very successful, others not so much. At the end of the day, I have found that a huge determining factor in each participant’s success was their at-home support as well as the parent’s level of participation in their care.

It can be daunting as a parent, who is already spread so thin, to take on any more responsibility. Therefore, I want to discuss 5 ways that you can now be a part of your child’s therapeutic progress. In order to do this, I’ve spelled a simple-yet-not-so-catchy-and-pretty-bland way to remember these steps… PARCC (Patience, Acceptance, Reinforcement, Consistency, Care).

  • Patience:
    No type of therapy should be a “miracle drug” or a “magic trick” that evokes progress over night. Therapy takes time and time requires patience. Practicing these skills will eventually make them second nature for your child! This is especially important when working with individuals with special needs (including those with mental health needs). Please remember that when you sign your child up for therapy, this is an ongoing process that does not have a prescribed time limit. Your therapist can discuss any concerns you may have and will be flexible if you have financial or scheduling concerns. Remember, if you practice patience, successful outcomes will arise when you least expect them!
  • Acceptance:
    Often times, this can be the hardest for parents of children with special needs. Acceptance of the participant’s circumstances and needs is vital for therapeutic success. Consider that when a fully developed adult starts therapy, they need to accept why they are there in order to move forward. Unfortunately, children don’t always get that luxury, so it is even more important that you are supporting, accepting and nurturing your child. Embrace their imperfections and you will see many more beautiful moments throughout their development. Remember that everyone is “different” in unique ways… being the same would be boring!
  • Reinforcement:
    “Reinforcement” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the act of strengthening or encouraging something,” or, “a thing that strengthens or encourages something.” Any time your child is successful (especially in tasks that directly relate to therapeutic goals), BE EXCITED! I encourage you to be silly-over-the-top, happy! Smile, giggle, tickle, and love them. Use words that are direct and concise (ex: “Great job going potty!” or, “ Wow! I love how you said ‘thank you’ so nicely!”). This conveys to your child that you value their success and are proud of them. This healthy support will strengthen your relationship with your child. Remember, the more love and pride you share with your child in response to desirable behaviors, the more likely they are to continue to develop their skills!
  • Consistency:
    Let’s say you’re taking piano lessons. You go through the motions by showing up to lessons, but put no time into practicing at home. In this situation, it is highly unlikely that you will ever improve because muscle memory is key to success on piano. Now let’s think of that example in relation to therapy. You’re child is developing a therapeutic relationship with another individual, someone who you trust with your child’s care. Therapy sessions are not lessons. Your child is learning life skills, not leisure skills. In order for your therapist to maximize your child’s success within the context of a stable, evolving and therapeutic relationship, your child should be consistently attending therapy. Unfortunately, this pressure sometimes falls on the caregiver (you!). Remember, the more consistent your child’s attendance, the greater progress you will witness!
  • Care:
    This is something that I not only strive to teach those I work with but also remember for myself. I cannot provide the highest quality of services for your child if I am not at my optimum health (mentally and physically). Similarly, you cannot care for child to the best of your capability of you are struggling with your mental or physical health. Strive to give yourself de-stress time every day, even in small intervals. A little is better than nothing. You’re child will sense your happiness and feel more loved. Plus, all five of these steps will be easier to put into practice! Remember, you cannot care for others until you care for yourself!

I sincerely hope that these five steps aid you and your child on their ever-evolving journey of development. If you are lost and need guidance, do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s therapist as they can provide you with the necessary tools for success. Remember PARCC and you will soon see progress with your child. Allow your love to make a difference!