This article recently published by Larissa Romensky from ABC Central Victoria explores the many benefits of the work that is happening with art therapy in Bendigo at the Vahland Complex. Larissa describes “an externally-funded art therapy program in Bendigo for people with serious mental health issues which aims to reduce stigma, with a call for classes to be an ongoing part of therapy.”
The Vahland Art Group, an art therapy program at the Vahland Complex in Bendigo, aims to reduce the stigma around mental health issues.
“It helps me relax, it helps my anxiety. It’s a place to come together in a friendly and safe environment to express how I feel.”
The complex caters to people with acute and severe mental health issues from Kyneton to Mildura, and can accommodate 20 people — 12 in community care units and eight in a secure extended care unit.
The 2014-15 National Health Survey found 3.6 million Australians reported co-existing long-term mental, behavioural and physical health conditions, with more than 750,000 Australians reporting having a psychological disability in 2012.
Olivia Sudholz was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of 20.
A chronic mental illness, it is characterised by a combination of symptoms, including mood swings similar to those found in bipolar disorder, together with symptoms of schizophrenia.
Ms Sudholz wound up in Vahland Complex after experiencing delusions and “lost the plot completely”.
“It was horrendous; it made me really scared,” she said.
Ms Sudholz described the experience as “horrific”.
“Having your freedoms taken away, that you had to stay in a certain environment, which was not always pleasant,” she said.
Ms Sudholz spent 11 months in the complex but managed to find some solace through the art program.
“It helps me relax, it helps my anxiety, it’s a place to come together in a friendly and safe environment to express how I feel,” Ms Sudholz said.
“Just having the paintbrush in my hand going up and down on the canvas creating backgrounds is very therapeutic.”
Expressing emotions though art
Art therapist San Leenstra said art was a fantastic way of communicating emotions and helping people express themselves.
“I do get to see them much more as people and they open up and they talk, and you have the space and the time to listen, which is very difficult in a busy, busy unit.”
Nadia De Vecchi, Psychiatric nurse
“It means that when you use words for emotions they go, but when you express it in art it stays, and people can look at it and reflect on it,” Ms Leenstra said.
“That reflection is where the real change happens.”
Psychiatric nurse Nadia De Vecchi, who also works in the program, said many of the clients had embraced art as a form of communication, making it easier for them to communicate with health professionals.
“I do get to see them much more as people and they open up and they talk, and you have the space and the time to listen, which is very difficult in a busy, busy unit,” she said.
Ms De Vecchi said in a secure extended care unit, people could spend three to 12 months there, with some staying for several years, kept under the Mental Health Act with no discharge date.
“How do you actually occupy people for that amount of time?” she said.
Biomedical focus more favoured than art therapy
Ms De Vecchi said it was important to tackle mental health issues from a broader perspective.
She thinks the current post-deinstitutionalised system of care has too much of a biomedical focus.
“So they need less drugs to keep them nice and stable”
Nadia De Vecchi, psychiatric nurse
She said many of her clients had experienced some form of trauma including childhood sexual abuse, poverty, drug abuse by parents, some with a mental illness, alcoholism and family violence.
“They’re the things that are very prominent in their lives,” Ms De Vecchi said.
Ms Leenstra said in some countries, such as the Netherlands where she worked for many years as an art therapist, art therapy was an integral part of many mental health units and was an expected part of treatment.
“Regrettably in Australia that’s not yet the case, but we’re hopeful there’s going to be in the future,” she said.
Currently Ms De Vecchi applies for external funding for the twice-weekly art therapy classes through Partners in Recovery.
More art, less drugs
Ms Leenstra said one of the main issues for people who suffered from mental health issues was the stigma.
“They’re never seen as really worthwhile citizens, they’re very much marginalised within society,” she said.
“So we are just trying to bring to the forefront that they are actually just people with lives, and passions, and hope and dreams like everybody else really.”
Ms Sudholz, who had not been in an art class since Year 7, said in the past two years the art therapy program had taught her many things, including not only how to mix colours, but how to slow down and not rush.
Ms De Vecchi said in last year’s evaluation of the program, one of the associate charge nurses wrote he noticed that required medication went down when clients were in the art classes.
“So they needed less drugs to keep them nice and stable,” Ms De Vecchi said.
Although she was quick to point out this was a comment and was not evidence-based, she said the Staricoff Study from the UK ran a research project examining the impact of arts on health.
“There was some indication that PRN [required] medications were actually reduced during art therapy because it is relaxing,” Ms De Vecchi said.