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This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.

Written by Jacie Farris

When Eileen Misluk first met one of her new clients, a 13-year-old girl suffering from severe anxiety, she started the therapy session by asking the girl to help her tear tissue paper into different shapes. By the end of the session, the girl was laughing and making eye contact. She was excited to come back for a second session to make art with the paper pieces.

“This teen became empowered and was able to address her anxiety and fears by enhancing her strengths, and this was all done by engaging in art therapy,” said Misluk, adding that this type of therapy taught her client to “manage her anxiety, use coping skills and build self-esteem.”

Misluk is an assistant clinical professor of art therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University’s Herron School of Art and Design, which offers a master’s degree program that allows students to meet the requirements necessary to become registered art therapists and licensed mental health counselors.

For Misluk, art and dance helped her work through challenging times in her life. Through her personal experiences and those of her clients, Misluk has learned that art therapy can be “empowering.”

“Art therapy uses the creative process and art materials to explore, bring awareness to, work through and reframe experiences to gain a new understanding,” said Misluk. “I believe that there is power in engaging in creative expression; there is power in the therapeutic relationship; and that through the creative process, individuals are able to gain control and mastery within their lives.”

Christine Arthur is an art therapist and psychotherapist at the Julian Center, a service provider and shelter for domestic violence victims. Art therapy helped one of her clients, a mother who had difficulty interacting with her child, learn to enjoy spending time with her son again. She found ways to communicate with him and help him with his emotional needs. Arthur believes this mother now feels more confident as a parent.

“A family I have been working with has found an ability to communicate using art therapy and to find joy in their relationship once again,” said Arthur. “The art serves as a shared experience that allows touch and connection, which was damaged by domestic violence. The art made helps each family member to really ‘see’ one another in new ways.”

The Julian Center has a trauma-informed art therapy program for individuals, families and groups. According to Arthur, this program uses the process of making art to encourage sensory experiences that can help regulate emotions and increase relaxation.

“Art is a natural language for children,” said Arthur. “It eases anxiety and enhances emotional expression. Art is a type of symbolic speech that doesn’t rely on verbal skills. It also enables kids to express experiences related to trauma for which they may not have words due to the unique way that trauma impacts the brain.”

Misluk agreed, saying, “As we know, child and teen brains are not fully developed, so…higher order cognitive skills such as problem-solving; judgement and critical thinking; and logical reasoning are still being developed. Children and teens tend to gravitate towards creating, and art therapy engages them in a [way] that supports this developmental process.”

For parents who haven’t been aware of art therapy, don’t worry. While the practice has been around for decades, it is still gaining traction in Indiana. According to Arthur, research is currently being done that supports art therapy on a neuroscience level.

Misluk said, “Art therapy in Indiana has not been a widespread practice, with less than 50 practicing art therapists in the state. Art therapy in states like New York, Illinois, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin is more understood. This has to do with long-established graduate programs that led to an increase in art therapists practicing in those states. One hurdle that art therapists continue to face is the lack of reimbursement from third party payers. This problem is being addressed as art therapists in certain states are attaining art therapy licensure which will then allow for the services to be covered once recognized by insurance companies.”

Misluk and Arthur concur that art therapy can be beneficial for youth faced with any emotional or psychological issues, including medical problems; educational challenges; behavioral troubles; involvement in the legal or child service systems; trauma, abuse or neglect; grief or loss; mood or anxiety disorders; eating disorders; addictions; and much more.

Parents and guardians interested in art therapy for their children are encouraged to check out the Indiana Art Therapy Association. The association can reach out to a group of practicing art therapists to identify appropriate services for youth and families.

“There are art therapists in private practice, community mental health organizations and in the schools,” said Misluk. “Be aware [that] there are professionals who use art in their practices [who] are not masters-trained art therapists. It is important that when seeking art therapy services, the art therapist has the credentials ATR or ATR-BC or has graduated from an art therapy master’s program.”