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Supporting Addiction Recovery through Art Therapy

Stories | 07.06.21

After graduating from Adler University, Melika Mirilavasani, MCP-AT ’19, was looking for a work environment where she could apply her training as a socially responsible practitioner. In December 2019, Mirilavasani found that opportunity at the Phoenix Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education Society in Vancouver. A graduate of the Vancouver Campus Master of Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy program, she uses her background to bring art therapy to the program’s residents. 

She was drawn to the Phoenix Society’s focus on the human being behind the behavior, and on building relationships where everyone feels recognized, feels seen, and feels safe.  

“Even with the staff, you can see that we are more than colleagues. It really feels like family… Seeing that in every relationship, I really love that part of it, especially as an immigrant with my family away, it makes it easier to be in Canada alone and feeling that this is like your second family.” Mirilavasani said. 

Integrating Art Therapy into the Healing Process 

One of the most important part of Mirilavasani’s job is forming a secure attachment with the residents. “That attachment and healing that happens through the therapeutic relationship is really beautiful to witness,” Mirilavasani said. One of the ways she builds this relationship with the residents is guiding them through making art.  

Mirilavasani gets excited when she can see the positive impact of art therapy on her residents, but she knows that reluctance can be expected. She helps her residents that might feel uneasy of doing art by making art with them. For Mirilavasani, the goal is not to make fine art, the goal is to explore with the supplies, to experience curiosity and playfulness, and to feel the experience of flow in the process.    

She also utilizes this time to share with her residents an understanding of how art therapy impacts the neurological functioning to help reduce the effects that addiction and trauma can have. “For example, crayons, they have a smell and different colors,” Mirilavasani said. “They help them to feel grounded. It could also be related to some childhood memories.”  

There are two types of art therapy that Mirilavasani uses with her residents: “art as therapy” and “art in therapy.” She clarifies that “art in therapy” focuses on meaning making process , and she will ask questions of her clients, such as, “What does your anger look like? What image represents your anger?” Reaching a state of mind where residents get lost in the flow of their art making is how she explains what “art as therapy” would look like for her residents.  

Supporting the Community through Art Therapy 

Earlier this year, a few of Mirilavasani’s residents found a way to use their creativity to benefit their community. One resident in her group began knitting a toque, a type of hat, during their group therapy session. When it was time to share in group, this person shared that for them, knitting was like addiction recovery. “He said, you need to be patient, you need to do each part one by one, there is no easy way—you have to follow the steps,” Mirilavasani said.  

As the group moved through the process, more people joined this person in knitting toques, often consulting with one another on next steps and designs. They donated the finished toques to people who needed them to stay warm. Once a sense of community among the knitting group was built “they had something bigger to connect too – an idea, something to serve the larger community,” Mirilavasani said.  

This work and the work that many of her other residents do in group increases their self-worth and self-esteem. “At the end of the group, I ask them how they feel about their projects, how they want to title it and I share my observations and they start reflecting on their art and they report feeling surprised by their insights,” Mirilavasani said. “It’s something they started and finished so it gives them a sense of accomplishment, which in turn elevates their sense of self-capabilities. When their art is displayed, they feel proud and recognized.”  

Read more in the CNN story, “A man started a knitting group to help people like himself recover from drug addiction,” and the CBC Vancouver story, “Knitting takes off at addiction treatment center in Surrey as men stitch hundreds of toques.”   

Here are some art pieces that Mirilavasani made while inspired by her client’s journey, pain, and resilience:



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