The Arts Therapies





Arts Therapies and Trauma Treatment

Brief History of the ‘Arts Therapies’ in Melbourne

The rising profile of Arts Therapy in Allied Health and the Mental Health Field

Some PTSD Programs overseas that demonstrate the value of an Arts Therapy Focus

Arts Therapy training institutions in Melbourne

Extracts from Arts Therapy students’ Thesis Work


The Arts Therapies and their role in Trauma Therapy


The link between arts therapy and trauma therapy is in the central role played by Neurobiology in each of these fields. It has been observed for many decades that creative expression seems to help people as they try to come to terms with traumatic experience. But no-one really knew WHY it helped, not at the scientific and quantifiable level. Only as we have been able to look inside the brain and understand the mechanisms by which thought, feeling, sensation, creativity, memory and consciousness are mediated, have we been able to figure out why creative expression has played such an important role in healing the wounds of attachment, memory and the nervous system.

This discussion is given a separate tab under “Interpersonal Neurobiology – IPNB, Creativity and Healing“.


Why “ArtS Therapy” with an S?


The use of creativity in psychotherapy is many decades old, because it has tended to arise naturally as part of clients’ processes of self-examination, self-understanding and change. The different forms of creative expression are called ‘modalities’, and they fall into the following categories:





Narrative Therapy

Sandplay (including Diorama and Sandtray)

Visual Art (including sculpture and 3D installations)

Writing (creative prose, and poetry)


From the point of view of brain processes, these creative modalities will involve both similar and different parts of the neural network, and the practitioners/therapists will have both different and similar trainings. Until recently, in Australia, creative therapies saw themselves in different camps. The oldest official modality, Music Therapy, was accepted by mainstream Allied Health, while the newcomers, mainly Art Therapy, worked on the fringes of the hospital system. Art therapists might be hired by a psychiatrist or psychologist for some dedicated sessions for the client to use drawing for a specified purpose, but they were not regarded by psychiatrists as having the skills to do psychotherapy themselves. For this to change, Masters-level degrees needed to be introduced into Arts Therapy training. My understanding is that in Melbourne, the first tertiary institution to provide Art Therapy training was Latrobe, followed by RMIT and then MIECAT (Melbourne Institute for Experiential and Creative Art Therapies), during the 1990s.

Warren Lett, who had been the senior lecturer in Art Therapy at Latrobe, founded MIECAT, to provide therapy training in multiple forms of creativity – known as a ‘multimodal’ approach. The Masters degree from MIECAT was called Master of Creative Arts Therapy, and students received  some (basic) training in visual art, creative writing, sandplay, dance/movement, drama and music therapies.  The degree at RMIT was also multimodal, but Latrobe continued to provide a unimodal degree in art therapy.

In the last decade, the fractured nature of the creative therapy scene has been addressed, members from most of the different modalities and training backgrounds meeting together to see if they spoke a common language and could form some kind of collective to strengthen the position of the creative therapies in the mental health field. Seminars and workshops were held under the title of B.O.A.F. (Birds of a Feather), and generally, therapists found that although they used different tools (a brush, pen, piano and sandtray for example), the basic approach to psychotherapy was very similar, the psychodynamic method being the most common. As a result of these integrative meetings, it was decided to change the name of the creative therapies to an all inclusive term “Arts Therapy”. This is the term I consequently use in this website.


The Arts Therapies in Allied Health & the Mental Health Field

Over the last ten years the importance of the arts therapies has been rising in the field of trauma and abuse treatment. It has taken a long, long time for therapists trained in the use of creativity in psychological therapy to be taken seriously. And by seriously, I mean respected and treated as equals in the mental-health field. (This gulf between science and the arts can be seen in many other arenas.) I don’t want to criticise this history, because it is understandable that psychiatry/psychology/psychotherapy has been driven by the need for evidence-based and clinically verifiable protocols for treatment of mental health disorders. This is partly because psychiatry is embedded in a Positivist paradigm(1), and partly because the field of psychotherapy, dealing with the ‘non-physical’ realm of mental health, had to find some way of grounding itself, some way of being visible, explainable, and safe.

Jung’s divergence into the realms of metaphysics and spirituality must have been unnerving for the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, but it set the template for the dualism in mental health therapies ever since. The ‘medical model’ held the Positivist faith in objectifiable, scientific, measurable and observable data – all of which has been both necessary and instructive, creating a platform for Neuroscience to build upon. On the other side, many alternative therapies found a place for themselves on the fringes of the health-and-wellbeing scene. Some examples are: acupuncture, Alexander Technique, autogenic training, biofeedback, colour therapy, Chinese medicine, network chiropractics, Feldenkrais Method, flower essences, gem therapy, holistic medicine, holotropic breath work, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, iridology, kinesiology, massage therapeutic, pyramid healing, reflexology, reiki, rolfing, shiatsu, sound therapy, yoga therapy. Some of these therapies draw heavily on best-practice techniques of standard psychotherapy, combining it with their own idiosyncratic toolkit. And other therapies have little meeting point with either medical-model or evidence-based psychology practice, but may assist the body to relax and address stress issues. But none of these alternative therapies are ‘arts therapy’.

Until recently, arts therapy was seen as one of the many non-medical-model pseudo-therapies, and was mostly ignored as a serious treatment intervention. Many psychiatric hospitals had an art therapy room, and many psychotherapists found that their clients produced drawings and poetry as part of their therapy work, but there was no scientific evidence to explain what actual benefit the creativity had in the healing process – until neurobiology made the connection. Here in Melbourne in the 1950s, Dr Eric Cunningham Dax began to collect the abandoned drawings from the art therapy rooms at psychiatric hospitals, often pulling them out of the rubbish skip. By the 1970s he had a huge collection of artwork, which became the basis of the Cunningham Dax Collection, now The Dax Centre on the ground floor of The Brain Centre at Melbourne University.

The history of the Childhood Abuse Collection in the Cunningham Dax Collection illustrates the trajectory of the arts therapies in the mental health field. The main Collection, for many years, was only viewable by trainee psychiatrists and doctors. The artworks existed as objects for psychological interpretation, illustrating various mental disorders and psychopathologies. This approach changed over time, and in 2001 Dr Eugen Koh took over directorship of the institution. He happened to visit an exhibition of artworks at the International Conference on Trauma & Dissociation in 2003, a huge exhibition which had been mounted as a collaboration between The Delphi Centre and The Jamillon Centre in Melbourne. Both these centres were pioneers in depth psychotherapy for survivors of trauma and abuse, especially survivors of cult abuse. Over 400 creative works had been donated by clients for this exhibition, including drawings, paintings, handmade dolls, banners and installations, all created as part of the therapy process.

Dr Koh approached the convenors of the exhibition and offered to acquire it in its entirety for the Cunningham Dax Collection. In the end it took two years of negotiation between the Dax Centre (as it is now called) and the Jamillon Centre to agree on how the childhood abuse artworks would be managed by the Dax Centre. The donors of the artworks insisted that their art therapy works would not be interpreted by anyone but themselves. Most of the artworks were accompanied by a description written by the artist/client and this description was to be displayed next to the artwork at all times. The Childhood Abuse Collection became the first part of a larger Trauma  collection that would include Holocaust art, Indigenous art, Refugee and War trauma art, and natural disaster art therapy works. By the time this first trauma collection was assembled and ready for exhibiting, the Dax Centre had become inclusive, open to the general public, and visited by thousands of senior school children every year, as part of their studies. The Centre offered professional development for trainee art therapists, and the Childhood Abuse Collection was used to help educate professionals in Allied Health about the needs of people who have experienced trauma. More recently The Dax Centre has hosted gatherings of Birds of a Feather and supported discussion about the integration of the various professional bodies.

The last major exhibition of the Childhood Abuse Collection, titled “Healing Childhood Trauma”, was presented at Parliament House in Canberra, for four weeks.

Dax at Canberra1

Dax at Canberra2

Gillian Nikakis, convenor of the Childhood Abuse Collection committee, and Senator Catryna Bilyk, whose patronage made the Parliament House exhibition possible.

Gillian opening speech

Opening ceremony, Parliament House, 2010












(1) The issue of the psychiatry/psychotherapy divide comes up in several places on this website. Clinical psychology used to be fairly synonymous with psychotherapy, but over the last few decades has been aligning itself strongly with psychiatry and the medical model. The writings of Daniel J. Siegel have been such an inspiration to me for the very reason that he has found a way of reconnecting psychotherapy with science, but not necessarily with psychiatry. He has offered us a way around this issue.

Below are links to an article written by the husband of a psychotic wife, and their journey through the dilemma of trying to find a middle ground between psychiatry and its need to control ‘patients’, and non-medical models which allow freedom but may not provide safe tools for healing.  This link will take you to the entire article, and this link will take you to excerpts that relate to the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement.


The Arts Therapies in PTSD treatment programs


Below are some extracts from and links to articles or websites about successful programs around the world that treat PTSD specifically with arts therapy.



By Susan Raab in Non-Profit Quarterly, February 21st, 2015







Art may not be the first therapeutic tool that comes to mind when treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it has proven to be effective and is being used in a number of places to help returning soldiers. In El Paso, a new collaborative project called the Soldier Art Workshop Program will be launched by the El Paso Art Association in March. The volunteer effort brings local artists together with area soldiers and their families and is designed to teach art to the soldiers as they “make the transition to normal military and family life after deployment.” Twelve workshops will be held at the El Paso Museum of Art and the Fort Bliss Family Center over the course of a year. They will focus on visual arts, including oil and watercolor painting, mixed-media encaustics, and digital photography.

These artists are in good company in using art with returning soldiers. A National Geographic cover story this month, “How Art Heals the Wounds of War” by Andrea Stone, reported on an art therapy program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which had soldiers making masks revealing an aspect of their experience. Melissa Walker, an art therapist who works with veterans at Walter Reed, said the program started in 2010 to help returning injured service men and women. “We needed to look for additional types of treatment,” Walker said. “At the time, I’m not so sure people understood the impact it would have, (but after) a very short time, it became clear [they] were taking to art therapy.”

Jackie Biggs, a 2013 masters graduate from George Washington University’s Columbian College Art Therapy Program, was given a National Endowment for the Arts grant to “integrate art therapy into treatment for active-duty military patients at Fort Belvoir,” one of the first in the country to focus on the area of art therapy for trauma victims. That treatment has now become a standard component of the hospital’s patient/soldier protocol. Biggs believes it’s been effective because “this is a group that tends to internalize their trauma; they hope it will go away if they don’t talk about it.” But swallowing trauma like that can lead to depression, abuse, or suicide, whereas art therapy can “give them a voice when words aren’t there.”

Another program that has received national recognition is Operation Oak Tree, run by the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) in Chicago. Operation Oak Tree utilizes art therapy and the creative arts to help military families from the time of pre-mobilization and deployment through reintegration. It gained the attention of Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden when it was part of a presentation made in June where Dr. Biden was touring to promote an initiative she’s promoting with First Lady Michelle Obama to mobilize all sectors of society to give members of the armed forces and their families opportunities and support.

The new El Paso program has the potential to serve as an affordable model in this vein because it encourages the local arts community to serve as a conduit for supporting soldiers and their families at a very difficult time.—Susan Raab


Arts Therapy Training – Miecat, Phoenix, Latrobe


In Creative Arts Therapy training, a great part of the training is experiential. By that we mean that the students use themselves as guinea pigs, experiencing directly and subjectively what it is like to use creative tools in the service of healing from emotional, cognitive or traumatic wounds (recognising that the student population contains a wide range of backgrounds, some with trauma, the rest with a more normal swag of issues). It is absolutely required that students be willing to submit themselves to personal and introspective work as part of their training. This is very different from the training of psychologists.

This section presents extracts from written and creative work done by students of arts therapy courses in Melbourne. It was considered worthwhile to share this information, as it gives such a clear picture of the benefit to aspiring therapists of having subjective experiences of being ‘a client’, quite apart from the benefit of the opportunity to heal some of their own wounds.

Again, my thanks go to the students and practising therapists who so kindly agreed to share some of the results of their experiential training.

Extracts from a Masters Thesis
The Swan sculpture 1


More on The Healing Journey

The Healing Journey

Therapy – Why do it?

Essential Issues in Trauma Therapy


Emotional Release Therapy


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy


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