Aspen Times Weekly: Pictures of Health
When they walked into the studio at the Wyly Community Art Center, a lot of the kids seemed skeptical. Seeing an instructor in a paint-stained smock, and tables lined with watercolors, inks, brushes and swatches of fabric, they giggled, some snickered, others rolled their eyes. But five hours later, these eight kids from the Youth Recovery Center — an addiction treatment center at Valley View Hospital specializing in clients age 14 to 18 — all had artwork to share, all had something to say about it and, to their surprise, it had something to say about them.
A 17-year-old from Durango painted a scene with a mountain lion in the woods, a pair of bloodshot eyes positioned in the foreground. He was four days into treatment, and started the day at the Wyly a bit shy and stand-offish. But he lit up talking about his painting. It’s from a real life story, he said, of smoking methamphetamine alone in the woods and scaring off a mountain lion with a knife and a cooking pan. As he told his story (“I was gonna stab the shit out of that mountain lion!”), it drew supportive laughs and cheers from the rest of the kids, and then got him talking openly about fear.
“I had some bad experiences that day that got deep in my head that were messing with me,” he said. “I guess it feels good to get some of it out and share it. It’s nice.”
Seated in a semi-circle on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Wyly in Basalt, the young recovering addicts went one by one talking about their work. Part of a “Journaling with Images” exercise, the day began with 10 minutes of free-writing, followed by a full day of making art.
A girl from Steamboat made a collage for her mother, with designs that she thought her mom would like and the phrase, “Though I may bend I will not break” in the center. Other works included a lifelike rose, rendered amidst a jumble of letters, which its 18-year-old creator, kicking heroin, said represented the need to look for beauty in the mess of life.
A 15-year-old from Parker made a drawing of a chess piece on almond-aged paper, with the word “LIFE” above it. He said he’d often acted impulsively after fights with his mom and his brother, then gotten drunk or high, and then inevitably failed drug tests and gotten into more trouble with his probation officer. After 13 days in treatment, he said, he’d been thinking about chess.
“Life is a game and if you don’t think ahead, you lose,” he explained.
Another of the kids, a 17-year-old from Cortez who had been sober a week, drew a woman’s face with the letter “I” in place of one of her eyes, in a play on the Biblical adage “an eye for an eye.”
He said it happened unconsciously. He’d been drawing a face, he said, then got into it, added the “I,” and then got to thinking.
“Part of the reason I’m here is because I did a lot of things, and it’s coming back on me,” he told the group. “Kharma does happen.”
Brooke Coon, an instructor who leads the monthly “Journaling with Images” sessions with the Youth Recovery Center residents, said her days with the young recovering addicts dependably go this way: kids start out shy, they don’t think much of the art they’re making, then at the end they surprise themselves with some profound conclusions.
“They think it means nothing, and then at the end they find it’s really deep,” she said.
Therapy for the kids at the Youth Recovery Center is about as high stakes as therapy gets. All of the patients there have been diagnosed with chemical dependence, most with additional mental health or behavioral diagnoses, and have failed in prior attempts to get clean through treatment. Many of them are in legal trouble — the kind of juvenile convictions where a few more scrapes with the law can derail an adult life.
Art might not be the first thing you think a kid needs in such a situation. But self-expression, say staffers at the 25-year-running Youth Recovery Center, is key to turning their lives around. They use art along with a battery of more traditional recovery methods.
Over the course of the 42-day program at the Youth Recovery Center, the kids will spend a day at the Aspen Art Museum and another making art with an Art Museum educator. They’ll make work at the Carbondale Clay Center, and make music with a local musician. Along with their day at the Wyly’s “Journaling with Images” program, they’ll spend time working with licensed art therapist Kym Allison.
“A lot of these young people have difficulty expressing themselves,” said Tom Schwenk, a recreational therapist at the Youth Recovery Center. “And you might hear, ‘I can’t do it when I’m not under the influence.’ So I see it as a way of expressing themselves, with the freedom to be themselves, and not needing a substance. Being able to do that, hopefully they realize they don’t need it.”
The Youth Recovery Center’s use of the arts is just one piece of a movement in the Roaring Fork Valley that’s embracing art as a therapeutic tool.
Actively making art, and passively experiencing art, are both being used by an increasing number of programs and practitioners in the valley.
The Aspen Hope Center — a clearinghouse for mental health services, which opened 2010 with a mission to curb the valley’s outsize suicide rate — is embracing the use of art.
“Art has crossed the Hope Center’s path so often in the last six months that we’re trying to get people more connected with the arts and therapy,” Hope Center director Michelle Muething said. “It can make an enormous impact.”
The Hope Center has more frequently been referring clients to local art and music therapists, and partnering with a growing number of arts organizations.
“One thing we specialize in is finding what specific people need,” Muething said. “Art is a modality that can reach people, and is becoming more well-known. And we’re finding that’s what a lot of people need and want here.“
FRAMES OF MIND
In recent months, the Hope Center has integrated art-making into some of its group counseling sessions. They’ve also begun referring people to a local therapist who uses clay with clients, and to the valley’s only practicing music therapist — Mack Bailey — who opened his local shop last year, wile also sending some people to the new Aspen Art Museum.
They’ve begun sending clients from the Hope Center’s intensive outpatient program to the museum, as a place for quiet reflection. But it’s also a museum where, by design, visitors have to talk to people — however briefly — at the front desk and when entering its galleries.
“I’ve thought about the museum as a place of reception and alternative means of communication,” said Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman. “I know that moment of darkness is so often a moment of isolation. If you can get people out of that instant, it can make it entirely different.”
Zuckerman herself recalled a fight with a boyfriend during college at the University of Pennsylvania, after which, fuming, she wandered into the Locks Gallery in downtown Philadelphia and found some relief by briefly focusing on something else.
“What happens with art, when it’s at its best, is it removes us from the here and now and it takes us to a better place,” she said. “It’s not a prescribed place or a didactic place. But it removes you from your immediate circumstance.”
The Hope Center is also bringing Fort Collins artist and art therapist Jennifer Ianovich to town later this year. Ianovich collects stories from people with mental illness and makes artwork out of their stories. From afar the pieces look like stains on a wall, but up close they’re vibrant, detailed paintings that tell those stories. The project, titled “Stigma Stains,” is aimed at reducing the societal stigma attached to mental illness.
“These are stories of hope from people who have made it through,” said Muething.
Therapist Mack Bailey’s clients don’t sit back on a couch and talk to him. He arrives at their homes with a bag filled with instruments — a singing bowl, shaker eggs, a cabasa, drums, bells, tambourines — and his guitar.
Bailey has been playing music in Aspen for decades. Until last summer, most of his performances here were as a touring musician with folk rock bands like the Limelighters and the Hard Travelers along with John Denver tribute concerts. Throughout his career, he had frequently volunteered to play in nursing homes and hospitals, and he has seen the effect music can have on people during painful times.
Four years ago, he decided to step off-stage and devote himself to harnessing music’s therapeutic potential.
“I knew the power of music, but I wanted to know how to be in control of that, which I think is the whole crux of the therapeutic value of it,” he explained.
At 50, Bailey entered the music therapy program at Colorado State University, focusing on neurologic music therapy, which put the road musician in an unlikely seat in classes like biology and neuroanatomy. Graduating in 2013, he did his internship at Children’s Hospital Colorado, where he recalled a transformative experience with a young girl who had conversion disorder.
She couldn’t talk, only howled. So Bailey sat down and howled with her. Then he played a piano and found the note she was howling in, and moved it down to a note that was in her normal vocal range. Eventually, her voice came down as she howled with the music, and she started talking. Working with a metronome and one of her favorite songs — Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” — he also slowly worked her out of her Parkinson’s-like shuffle to a normal gait.
Songwriting is Bailey’s focus in his new Aspen-based practice. His method — and it’s a method he backs up with case studies published in The Arts in Psychotherapy, the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy and The Journal of Addiction Nursing — is to get people to tell their story, then turn it into lyrics, and then set it to music. The method has proved particularly effective with children who’ve experienced trauma and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Every time you add a musical element, whether it’s rhythm, harmony, meter — when you add that, it’s still your story, but it adds a degree of separation [from the trauma],” he explained.
Once he gets a song written with a patient, they record it with someone else singing it, to allow people another lens through which to see their situation. As a rule, when he has clients write songs, he directs them to end on a positive note. If the song sticks with them like an earworm, he argues, they’ll see some hope in the trauma they’ve written about.
Music therapy, in particular, is also effective with dementia patients. An old song can stay stuck in someone’s memory despite the effects of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Play it, and they may start singing or humming along.
With dementia patients, he said, playing music can open up something that brings a person back toward who they used to be, all on the strength of endorphins.
The wife of a local dementia patient who has been seeing Bailey, playing drums and other instruments, called his work “simply amazing.”
“Mack has brought out much laughter, tears and community to our current situation,” she said via e-mail.
Bailey is quick to differentiate between music therapy and music as entertainment for the ill. He’s currently researching how music affects the frontal cortex and limbic system in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A lot of people feel music therapy is singing ‘Cumbaya’ and feeling good,” said Bailey. “So music therapy is working hard right now, as an industry, to get as much evidence-based research as possible out to get it up there with other therapies. And it’s a hard battle.”
A statewide group called the Colorado Task Force for Music Therapy has been fighting for statewide “licensure” legislation, meaning a therapist couldn’t claim to be a music therapist unless they are board-certified as such. Without such protection, most health insurance policies won’t cover music therapy, so less people who might benefit from it will find certified music therapists like Bailey. Three states in the U.S. — North Dakota, Nevada and Georgia — have passed licensure legislation since 2011.
Muething, of the Hope Center, said her organization has seen the results of music and art therapy on mental illness. When people reach out for help here, she said, she wants them to have choices beyond traditional therapy and counseling.
“In a world where the mental health system is broken and so many people are trying to be creative, we want to be one of those people,” she said. “We need to have options for them.”
Aspen Strong, an online directory for mental health assistance that launched last year, also includes three local art therapists.
“I feel like there’s a strong energy right now,” said Bailey. “People are coming together in the valley.”
OUT OF HARMONY
Meanwhile, one of the bedrock programs linking the arts to the medical field in the valley is going away. Holistic Harmony, a music program for patients at Valley View — founded in 2003 by radiation oncology nurse Lesa Russo — is in the midst of phasing out after 12 years.
Russo, a former professional musician, began playing for patients and recruiting local players to join her in 2003. Several nights a week, musicians — a stable of 40-plus — could be seen making the evening rounds at the hospital, performing for patients and their families. In recent years, Russo has spoken at medical conferences about the program and the effect of music on her patients. At least a half-dozen similar programs have sprung up in Colorado since Russo formed Holistic Harmony.
Over the years, it has included harpists, flautists, folk singers, a capella groups, and a choral group made up of hospital staff.
“We would get called to people’s rooms who were down and needed some comfort,” she said.
As other professional responsibilities are taking up more of her time, Russo said, she began phasing Holistic Harmony out in 2015.
Holistic Harmony, Russo is quick to note, isn’t music therapy — it has simply been a way of brightening patients’ time in the hospital, offering a diversion, something to ease pain, which she describes as “an off-the-cuff, free spirit thing,”
The small gesture of bringing songs from volunteer musicians to her patients has had some big impacts. Russo recalled an experience with a stroke victim, for instance, who wouldn’t so much as look at hospital staffers until a musician came to his room.
“He was so angry at the world and he wouldn’t speak to anybody,” she recalled. “[The musician] happened to play ‘Danny Boy’ and this guy just rolled over and literally started singing with him. … It often just strikes a chord or a memory, and helps create a safe space.”
DRAWING IT OUT
Like Bailey, art therapist Kym Allison began as an artist. She had been steeped in the alternative art scene in Denver, where she made a living in architecture. But after working on art projects with at-risk youth in Alamosa, she was inspired to go to graduate school and learn how to combine her artistic skills with effective therapy.
Now in private art therapy practice based in Glenwood Springs, she has been seeing clients from the Youth Recovery Center for the last five years. In one-on-one sessions, she uses an art directive that’s specific to an issue a patient is facing. People who seemingly can’t talk about certain things often open up through art, she said.
“It’s a softer way to deal with a topic, like addiction, that has a high level of shame associated with it,” she said.
Adult clients, with all their defense mechanisms and neuroses firmly in place, are slower to open up than the kids she works with.
“The most fearful look I’ve seen is when I put a piece of paper in front of an adult,” she said.
With training in transformational counseling and art therapy, Allison uses art as a doorway into clients’ issues. It’s particularly effective for people in life transitions, she said, whether it’s divorce, adolescence, a midlife crises, recovering from brain injuries or trying to shake addiction.
“Part of it is me watching what they’re doing,” she explained. “Where do they start on the page? Is there a place they keep erasing? Is there a place they keep verbalizing what they’re doing? That helps identify what’s going on with them. Then, when I start talking to them I have clues and hints so that I can help draw things out and let them self-discover.”
One client, she recalled, was a teenager with post-traumatic stress who was grieving over a relative who’d died in an accident. After making little progress in talk therapy, she asked him to draw a bridge, with himself somewhere in the picture. He made a stone bridge, with a tunnel underneath it, and himself at the end of the tunnel.
“As we talked about the drawing he realized, ‘Hey, I’m in a lot better place than I thought I was,’” she recalled. “That’s all he needed. Soon he was going back to school and seemed to be off the substance abuse road. And that can happen. Sometimes it can happen that quickly.”
Allison is hopeful that art therapy — in all its different forms — will continue to grow in prominence in the valley and beyond.
“My hope and dream is that someday when people think of therapy and behavioral health, the last thing they would think about doing is just going and talking to somebody,” Allison said. “Talking is great. But it’s not the end all and be all. There are so many other ways to express ourselves.”
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