Drawing on art to help Delaware children

Certified Art Therapist Jennifer August talks with Urias and Amir Shockley, 10, as A’Zion 11, right, and his brother Davarr Curtis,9, paint during an Art Therapy session at the Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The boys drawing pictures with markers and paint at round tables inside Solid Rock Community Outreach Center weren’t just creating artwork. They were using art to express their feelings, part of a mental health approach called art therapy.

A’Zion Curtis, a sixth grader from Dover, picked up a thin brush and began to carefully paint a blue circle.

Ultimately his circle became part of an elaborate picture that portrayed a potential conflict between he and a peer.

Certified Art Therapist Jennifer August talks to A’Zion 11, right, and his brother Davarr Curtis,9, as they paint during an Art Therapy session at the Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery

Art therapy is designed to provide a method for children to convey what they are thinking on a given topic, from something that’s troubling them at school or home to behavior they aren’t proud of, explained Jennifer August, a board certified art therapist who works with children and adults, both individually and in group settings.

“Kids readily communicate through artwork and express themselves through images,” she said.

Through the pictures drawn in sessions, and sometimes even in one meeting, Ms. August said she and others trained in art therapy, can identify a child’s mental health needs. Licensed therapists can interpret clients’ artwork and help them address their troubles, whether it’s responding to trauma, such as the loss of a parent, or providing a proactive approach to resolve conflict.

When Ms. August heard the topic that A’Zion wanted to focus on during a recent session, she encouraged him to “ramp it up — a little more challenging.”

“The goal is to get it out,” she said.

Ms. August said she hopes the access to art therapy programs in Delaware will grow with legislation signed into law last month by Gov. John Carney. Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 43 amends the code by adding art therapy under the control of the Board of Mental Health and Chemical Dependency Professionals, defining art therapy’s scope and practice, setting minimum standards of qualification, education, training, and experience for art therapists; and maintaining certain standards in the delivery of art therapy services.

“It greatly increases vulnerable consumers’ access to specialized, essential, mental health assessment techniques and primary intervention care,” she said. “It will build the profession, which will be in consumers’ best interest.”

She said she’s just one of seven registered, board certified art therapists practicing in Delaware.

Once the new law takes effect March 8, she said, those individuals can apply for licensure as “Licensed Professional Art Therapist,” or LPAT. The bill also provides for an associate license (LAAT) for graduates of accredited art therapy graduate programs and graduates who have attained registration with the art therapy credentials board, who also administer the board exam. A master’s degree in art therapy is the entry level degree for practicing art therapy.

In addition to licensure, the bill named three art therapy professionals to the state’s art therapy advisory board, which operates under the mental health and chemical dependency professionals board.

Because Delaware’s legislative chambers passed SS1 unanimously — the first governing body in the state to do so — Ms. August said the executive director of the American Art Therapy Association, Cynthia Woodruff, traveled to Dover for the bill signing.

“Over a period of time, (the artwork is) a testament to the progress people make” during sessions, Ms. August said. “You immediately see it. You see the value.”

Art therapy at work

At one round table, Urias Shockley sat with his son, Amir, each creating their own images to explain different questions.

Prior to getting started, Ms. August gave them their tasks: “Amir, you up for a challenge? Express — as much as you’re comfortable — something you wish people understood more about you,” she told the fifth grader.

She instructed Mr. Shockley to express “something you wish at Amir’s age you could help him understand more.”

He cautiously got started, voicing concern that drawing was his worst skill.

“You don’t have to be artistic,” Ms. August said. “I don’t care how good you create. I’m not doing to teach you to create it better.”

“They’re working on a type of mutual understanding,” she explained of the pair, “which is important at this age.”

Afterward, the Dover father said he was pleased with the experience. “I didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” he said. “You learn something. I believe both of us did. I hope he did. I know I did.”

Steven Franklin, a partner with Northnode Counseling, said the art therapy groups add another tool to reach children and adolescents, especially those in disenfranchised communities who need physical and mental health services but lack the resources and access to get them.

Certified Art Therapist Jennifer August helps A’Zion 11, right, and his brother Davarr Curtis,9, paint as Urias and Amir Shockley, 10, work on their art during an Art Therapy session at the Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery

“This is more of an innovative way for us to get kids to open up,” he said. While it may be more difficult for younger children to use their words to express their feelings, art can provide that outlet.

“They’re more expressive,” he said. “We’re very excited about what (Ms. August) has to offer.”

Mr. Franklin grew up in Kent County and graduated from Caesar Rodney High School. With his partners Toni Jordan and Karl Dyton, they are trying to reach families in need and connect them to services.

The trio knows the challenges families face and they’ve sought to connect them by going door to door to talk about the services available.

“I was just blessed to be able to see a different life through sports,” Mr. Franklin said.

Northnode’s home base is Solid Rock Community Outreach Center in Dover, where it offered summer programs and hosts afterschool sessions. In addition to art therapy, there are music- and writing-based programs.

Mr. Dyton said there was some pushback from kids at first, but as they learned more about the program, they’ve embraced it.

“This is a powerful tool that these kids need and can utilize. Tell your story without literally having to tell it,” he said.

During a summer program, participants worked on ways to avoid conflict and potential violence in their neighborhoods. They focused on how they could avoid negative pressures and, as Ms. August taught them, they could be “too good for violence.”

Ideally, they can visualize the art they created and remember the lessons learned.

For instance, fourth-grader Davaar Curtis drew a scene of in which stick figures are modeling good behavior. The student reacts politely when the teacher reminds him of the rules.

Davarr Curtis, 9, left, and his brother ‘Zion, 11, show off their art work that they created this past summer during an Art Therapy session at the Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery

“It’s about being good in class,” he explained. “This is about listening to the teacher and doing what you are supposed to do.”

Similarly, the students worked on key words used at Campus Community School to guide students in their positive interactions with peers.

Ms. August held up a variety of orange posters, with words such as Cooperation, Empathy and Responsibility drawn simply in black marker. The students used those prompts to create images that they thought of to define the word and how they’d model that in their daily lives.

The task creates a “visual voice” for students to call on, she said.

A’Zion recalled a session this summer when students had to focus on “something we wanted to improve.” He chose his attitude and thinking about the image he created can make a difference.

“Sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on how bad of an attitude I have,” he said.

After seeing the success in the summer program for second to 12th graders, Mr. Franklin said Northnode realized it would be valuable for the students at Campus Community School, which educates kindergarten through eighth grades. Plans are in the works to offer art therapy programming there during school hours.

Northnode’s founders said mental health awareness is a hard sell, especially in the disenfranchised communities, and having more access to programs and varied methods of delivery, such as art therapy, to help families is critical.

“(People) don’t want to seek help,” said Mr. Dyton. “Mental health is as important as your physical health. They’re both related. If you don’t have a clear mind, everything else will start to be affected.”

Amir Shockley, 10, works on his drawing during an Art Therapy session at the Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery


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