Expressive arts therapy gives students a more accessible option

Nazaaha Penick, News Reporter

Due to the nature of confidentiality in therapy, the use of anonymous sources has been deemed necessary in protecting the privacy of those who attended the therapy session. Comments from two different students have been used in this article but will not be directly named.

In response to concerns raised last year about the inaccessibility of mental health services, Whitman counselors have taken initiatives to reach out to more students. Safer Than Words: A Therapy Group with Expressive Arts is an example of a new approach the Counseling Center is promoting in hopes of offering more options following the contentions aired last year in The Wire

The therapy group was established in the spring semester of 2022. There is a specific focus on expressive arts and the group favors diverse approaches to working through mental health issues. 

The description of the group outlines the practices that are applied. With a strong emphasis on creativity, traditional talk therapy plays a smaller role in the space. By prioritizing diversity, students at any artistic skill level are encouraged to join. 

“In this group, students will move between visual art, music, dance/movement, drama and expressive writing to honor their capacity for resilience and personal strength,” the description reads. “The expressive arts are effective for individuals who represent a wide array of diversities and differences. You do not have to leap gracefully or paint masterfully to benefit from this approach to therapy. Anticipate a welcoming and non-judgmental space to express what cannot be said in words.”

Counselor Nick Duran Fair leads the expressive arts therapy group on campus. Duran Fair strongly advocates for the artistic aspects of the group and speaks to the accessibility that comes with the practice. 

Everyone brings their own culture, their own complex identity and there’s space for that; there’s space for everyone being who they are fully,” Duran Fair said. “You relate to your culture when you’re approaching these different art-based processes and you call upon your own experiences. That’s the somatic aspect of it. It’s your lived firsthand experience.”

Duran Fair describes the importance of diversity in the therapy group. The group welcomes students with varying abilities and different backgrounds. Duran Fair believes those circumstances can look very different for people.

“I would also say that diversity is in that you don’t have to be a masterful dancer, painter or sculptor to do expressive arts. It’s really open to all backgrounds, all abilities even,” Fair said. “You know, movement, for instance, doesn’t have to look like leaping through the air. If you’re living in a wheelchair, you can still access dance movement as long as there is an openness there. That’s what I hope this space will provide.”

After the first session, an anonymous source at the event noted the personal benefits of attending the group. They felt it created a nice break from the overbearing expectations inherent in college life. The absence of formal evaluation contributed to the positive atmosphere. Rather than concentrating on a specific goal, the anonymous source noted that the freeform structure of the group was a necessary aspect. 

I would say [the benefits are] taking the time to slow down and get in touch with myself and the creative aspect without focusing on productivity or the goal, which I feel like a lot of school and education is based on,” the anonymous source said. “What are you going to produce? How fast or how well can you do this? This was really the opposite of that, and I think that balance is so off in college in general that this was really necessary.

A second anonymous source noted similar experiences during the therapy group. They commented on the accessibility of the creative practices used. 

I think this is also an accessible creativity,” the second anonymous source said. “It’s not about producing; it’s not about representing yourself to others, but it’s just about expression. I think that’s good.”

Addressing the contentions over the accessibility of mental health care facilities on campus, the first anonymous source believes that this group is not a solution, but it can be a beneficial option that all students have easy access to. 

“I think it does help with the accessibility. Not that it solves the problem at all, but that it’s a pretty low bar, and you don’t have to get processed [or fill out an intake form] to come,” the first anonymous source said. “You’re just welcome, and it meets every week. While it isn’t direct one-on-one therapy with a therapist, it’s definitely a different type of really beneficial therapy to connect with yourself and express yourself with other people.”

Therapy groups available on campus from September to November are Safer Than Words: A Therapy Group with Expressive Arts and the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Group

Find out more on Whitman’s Counseling Center website.