Reflecting on the value of arts therapy

When Stacey Waterson was working at a centre for addiction therapy in Auckland she noticed something surprising about the people there.

"Many of the residents would paint, journal, play musical instruments," she says.

"I thought 'there's something going on here; with this amount of people I wouldn't expect so many to be engaged in creativity'."

She searched online and discovered something called arts therapy and knew it was what she wanted to do.

Further investigations showed a programme at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in Parnell and so she applied to do a Master's degree and got turned down. "It made me more determined."

Stacey, who already had a science degree and a graduate diploma in psychology, tried again and was accepted in 2010.

A year ago she opened a private practice and now spends two days a week in Whanganui working with people who have been sexually abused and three days in New Plymouth seeing a variety of people.

Through Hospice Taranaki she works with children who have had someone close to them die or who is being cared for there. She also works with teenagers and people experiencing mental illness, including those with depression and/or anxiety.

Through Taranaki Primary Connections, GPs can refer people to her and they can have four sessions paid for.

On top of all this she runs workshops on creativity and wellbeing using arts therapy. The next one is in New Plymouth on the afternoon of June 22.

"I think art therapy can be beneficial to a huge variety of people. It's particularly useful for trauma or loss," she says.

"When a trauma happens, the language part of your brain can shut down. If there are no words, how do you let it out?"

She works with individuals to find out what they need, their expectations and what they want to work on.

"Some people don't know what they are feeling - they just feel yuck. I can assist with their exploration and an example of something I might do is explore that yucky feeling - where are you feeling it in your body?"

Then she might do some imagery work.

Stacey uses all areas of creativity in her work. People with anxiety feel it in their body, so she might do some movement work because that uses adrenalin.

Others might do creative writing, or pen music lyrics. Someone who is angry might need to bash that out on drums. Children like to use a Tibetan singing bowl she has to clear the energy between each session.

For some people painting or drawing works best, but the choice of art material is important. "For someone who doesn't have a lot of control in their life, pencils can be good because you can be very precise and rub it out," she says.

"Someone who's quite overwhelmed emotionally, you would not give them paint because paint goes everywhere - it can go out of control."

People are left to engage fully in the creative process and then when the art-making is finished, it's time for reflection.

"I ask what they can see. I don't analyse the work; I act as a guide for the person to make meaning of their work. It's really important that their perspective and experience of making the image is heard."

Sometimes she might encourage the person to have a dialogue with their image. "What's its title and if it could talk, what would it say and what does it need?"

She might get them to turn it upside down or look at it from a distance or draw part of it bigger. "All of this stuff is about growing your awareness. So there's quite a lot of exploration work."

Stacey doesn't show any of the pictures - they are strictly confidential, just like a person's notes.

But she is able to show work from her Master's studies. On her laptop she finds a picture created by a woman during a workshop with a group of people experiencing mental illness.

"I got them to draw themselves as they viewed themselves in the community. She drew this," she says, showing a picture of a figure behind barriers.

That led to a discussion about what barriers are. "They keep you safe. Nobody can get in and you are on your own."

The woman said nothing. But in her next picture, she drew a large red hand and acknowledged she didn't reach out to people. "It was important she came to that realisation herself," Stacey says.

"Things like that happen all the time. It's amazing. Every time I work with someone, I think 'wow!' "

For more information contact Stacey Waterson on 022 081 5800 or email her at or contact Like Minds Taranaki on 759 0966 or email

Taranaki Daily News