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Using the Expressive Arts in Mental Health Therapy part 2

As the KSMU Sense of Community series looks at mental health in the Ozarks, Randy Stewart visits with a counselor and therapist who uses the creative arts (among many other techniques) to work with troubled children and adolescents on Springfield's north side.

This morning, Dr. Kristi Perryman of Missouri State University gave us an overview of the field of "expressive arts therapy," where a counselor or therapist utilizes hands-on visual arts, movement, drama and so on, to draw out their clients and help them deal with the issues in their lives. This afternoon on "Sense of Community" you'll hear from Cheryl Johnson, a licensed professional counselor/therapist at the recently-opened Burrell North Children's Clinic on the Cox North campus. She had been a counselor at Reed Middle School for five years but ended up leaving due to budgetary issues. Burrell North Children's Clinic has been open since July.CHERYL JOHNSON: This is an underserved kind of population. And so part of what we're doing is, we're starting a clinic on this side of town, hopefully to fill the gaps that we left in the school setting when we left there because of funding decreases.

Cheryl Johnson characterizes Reed Middle School in those same terms.CHERYL: A real high-poverty setting with lots of right-brained kids that work real well with hands-on intervention--expressive arts, which could be music, any kind of movement, painting, drawing, journaling, anything like that. Expressive arts is more about just getting those emotions, everything that's inside, kind of getting that out.RANDY STEWART: As you say, it taps into the right side of the brain....CHERYL: Mmm-hmm. Kind of more that "creative" part of a person, the "emotional" part.

As the name of the clinic makes clear, Cheryl works with children and adolescents, and she says she does it mainly in the context of the family.CHERYL: When there's a crisis--let's say a kid is having problems at school, problems in the home setting, problems out in the community--is typically when families contact us to say, "We're needing some extra help!"RANDY: What kinds of situations do you end up dealing with then, with these kids?CHERYL: A lot of behavior problems, attention problems, anxiety problems, depression problems. It could be that they have some major family problems--you know, mom and dad are getting a divorce. Could be that the family is really struggling financially, there's lots of stressors on the family.RANDY: Now, do you use the art-based therapy with all of them, or is it on a case-by-case basis, where it seems like,"well, maybe it will work better with this person?"CHERYL: It's kind of on a case-by-case basis. Because as you look at my office, I use lots of different types of interventions.RANDY: There are a lot of different kinds of--everything from Tinker Toys to Jenga, Yatzee! and Scrabble games. But what caught my eye were the plastic dinosaurs that are kind of lining the walls and the windows! How do you use those?CHERYL: Part of what I have in my office is lots of different kinds of animals. I have bears over here, and cats--RANDY: Elephants...CHERYL: Exactly. One of the interventions that I use sometimes with children that have "complex trauma"--and what I mean by that is, maybe they've had a real serious thing happen in their life, and they haven't had a time to adjust to that before something else serious happens, and then something else and something else--and that happens a lot with younger kids, all ages of kids. But part of what they do is, they choose an animal that kind of is most like them, that they most like, and then we do a therapeutic story about how the animal was "injured."RANDY: Looks like several of them have "bandages" wrapped around them!CHERYL: Then what happens is, the kid gets to bandage the animal, and they get to decide when the bandages come off. I have two dinosaurs here--RANDY: I just noticed the stethoscope too--I like that, that's a good touch.CHERYL: Yeah, and typically what happens is, when the children come back that's one of the first things they check, is how their animal's doing.RANDY: And you have little small room where they can go and paint. You also mentioned music--how does music fit into this?CHERYL: Music is not the only thing I use, but sometimes just movement helps a child kind of learn where their body is more, and different aspects about them. A lot of times with adolescents in the groups at Reed (Middle School) what we would do is have the kids bring in their favorite song and share that with the group, and then do some processing about how that song makes them feel, how that helps them. A lot of what I use is clay, Model Magic. I mean, that taps into a child's senses. A lot of it is determined by how a person processes things. You know, if you don't process things real well verbally but can do things hands-on... and then there are some people that don't like to draw, there are some people that don't like to paint. So you tap into what they like to do, and then you kind of move them around that continuum of different kinds of art--creative arts.RANDY: So would you say there's a good success rate?CHERYL: Yes. I mean, just getting a child to open up and have other ways of doing things... and working with young kids is just wonderful, and families, because we can make an impact as a result of therapeutic intervention.For more information about Burrell North Children's Clinic, call 869-3250.