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Stories | 12.18.19

Helping Patients Feel Seen Through Art Therapy

Nelly Jimenez, M.A., a graduate of the Master of Arts in Counseling: Art Therapy program in Chicago, is an in-patient and outpatient art therapist at Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois. Jimenez developed the medical group’s first art therapy program, serving a wide range of patients from pediatric to geriatric.

To kick off the new program, earlier this year she led an art exhibit called “Shadow & Light,” created with patients to spread awareness of the importance of mental health care. The exhibit was held in the cafeteria at the hospital as the closing event for Mental Health Awareness month in May. She shares about how the exhibit encouraged patients to see “the light” within themselves.

The purpose of the exhibit was for the patients to discover what “the light” in themselves is, as well as what “the shadow” is, as psychologist Carl Jung described them. He said that everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. It forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our best intentions. The artwork we made with patients was displayed on easels and mounted on the walls along with their artist statements. It was an immense undertaking, and I was able to pull a show together within a month.

During the show, I asked each of the clients to look within themselves and visualize where they felt they hold their own shadows. Is it what they reach towards, so they feel it in their hands? Or do they feel their thoughts harbor the darkest parts, so they would say they hold their shadow in their head? Or perhaps is it the direction their life is headed, so they would hold their shadow in the feet.

After identifying and validating where it is they hold their shadow, I propped the paper on the wall and had the client sit facing the paper, then traced their shadow while a light was shining behind them. Creating this space for the shadows to be held was deeply moving for the patients.

It was important to sit with the shadows for an entire session as everyone completed this portion and disclosed what shadows they were going through at the moment. The prompt was to work on the shadow first. In this space, we recognized each other’s shadows in a group. This brought up a lot of emotion, and in this moment, the therapeutic work was happening—something shifted in the room and made this art project become real.

The second and final session was to focus on the light, the parts that contain the shadow and make the shadow bearable. The light is an example of the people, places, and things that bring the patient comfort, sense of purpose, and loving kindness. The mood immediately changed, as the patients disclosed how much better the room felt when the light was included. The message of this experience was uplifting: Even when it’s hard to see the light because you’re focused on the shadow, we can trust that the light is around us. This helped patients feel that they weren’t seen by their mental illness first.

At Adler University, I learned about this concept of encouraging sustainable empowerment using art, in addition to the importance of art material condition, how to create a therapy flow structure, and the kindest way to include newcomers in the therapeutic process. Art therapy engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone; it can bypass the limitations of language. Adler University helped me discover that visual and symbolic expression gives voice to experience and empowers individual, communal, and societal transformation.

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