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According to the American Art Therapy Association, “Art therapists are master-level clinicians who facilitate active art-making” (2017). We utilize the tenets of the practice of art therapy as contributors when we use art to self-soothe and express ourselves. It can also provide a meaningful basis for conversation.
They (master-level art therapists) “[utilize] the creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Through creative expression, art therapy facilitates self-awareness, regulation, and resilience” (2017). Meanwhile, we use art as a tool to reduce stress and anxiety, among other things.
One way that we can use art as therapy is in the prevention of suicide. According to the American Art Therapy Association: we can help calm and redirect suicidal individuals if we introduce “introduce self-soothing and sensory-based experiences [and] help [contributors] identify specific and tangible coping mechanisms and activities to decrease anxiety” (2017).
The American Art Therapy Association further states that if we can “create an attentional diversion of suicidal thoughts and impulses,” then we can help clients “cope with intense emotional states” (2017). Just as is \mentioned in the blog titled “Talking About Depression,” it is vital to speak in a gentle and empathetic way with people experiencing a suicidal crisis.
It is of the utmost importance that people caring for an individual experiencing a suicidal crisis to be empathetic instead of simply sympathetic because if we are not willing and able as carers to climb down Brene Brown’s metaphorical ladder and experience the rotten feelings of the suicidal person with them, we will not be able to be as helpful as we otherwise would (Brown, 2013).
As we see in Brene Brown’s Youtube video, empathy is much more useful than sympathy in helping people experiencing strong emotion to work through their crisis while feeling heard and respected. Sympathy, unfortunately, is just not enough in many cases. Fortunately, according to an article written in Psychology Today in 2018, although “empathy comes easily to some…” it’s possible to learn even if you’re not the most naturally empathetic person (Brant, 2018).
According to this article, we can all learn to be more empathetic by practicing stepping into another’s shoes and imagining what it must be like for them to live the life they’re living. In the case of suicidal crises, we believe the evidence shows that it is possible even for people who have never been through a suicidal crisis themselves to reach a place where they can fully empathize with the person-in-crisis and help them to successfully work through that crisis.
Back to art therapy for a moment though, and how to use it to help people in suicidal crisis! At Painted Brain, art begins as a starting point and by the end of a session, the artwork will have completely vanished as the focus of the session to be replaced by deep and meaningful conversations with other members and community members. These conversations would not have happened without the art as a catalyst, but empathy in listening to other contributors is vitally important, as well. One would not be nearly as helpful without the other.
In cases where a contributor might be suicidal, we recommend using art to soothe the person-in-crisis and then listening empathetically to what is happening in their lives.
American Art Therapy Association (2017). Suicide Prevention and Awareness Best Practices for Art Therapists and Resources for the Public. Retrieved from:
Brown, B. (2013). Brene Brown on Empathy. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
Goldstein, M. (2018). What Not to Say to Someone Living with Depression. Retrieved from: https://paintedbrain.org/news/