Art Therapy Program Helping Mental Health And Human Services

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From improving slow cognitive decline for seniors with dementia to creating art-based narratives to help Latinx women navigate cultural integration, students in Dominican University of California’s PhD in Art Therapy program are at the forefront of research that is advancing art therapy as an established mental health and human services profession.

Dominican’s inaugural cohort of PhD candidates will receive their doctoral degrees at the University’s commencement ceremony on May 14.

Art therapists work in a wide variety of settings including schools, mental health organizations, inpatient and outpatient programs, hospitals, community centers, nursing homes, prisons, and private practice. In recent years, art therapists have been included in medical and mental health support teams deployed to support communities in the aftermath of disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires.

“Most of these PhD students are licensed professionals who have been working in the field for many years and, through their research and practice based work, are contributing to understanding ‘art as a way of knowing’ the human experience,” says Dr. Richard Carolan, professor of art therapy.

“The students of the PhD program are looking to become stewards of the field of Art Therapy as they continue their work post graduation, while they look forward to contributing to the Dominican Experience while at the university.”

As one of only two PhD Art Therapy programs in the country, Dominican's program attracts a diverse student body from throughout the United States and overseas, with current students coming from Texas, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Southern California, and the greater Bay Area. The PhD in Art Therapy, along with the Master of Arts in Art Therapy and the Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy, moved to Dominican and the School of Liberal Arts and Education from Notre Dame de Namur University last summer.

The PhD curriculum integrates research and practice. The program’s format – in which students meet face-to-face for three consecutive days once a month on the Dominican campus – appeals to professionals who are practitioners either in the field of art therapy or those who have previous training in art therapy and who hold advanced degrees in fields that include psychology, counseling, social work, and art.

Maria Fuste joined the PhD program while continuing her work as a marriage and family therapist and board certified art therapist. Maria works in private practice in Costa Mesa, not far from where she grew up as a first generation Cuban-American and, later, a first-generation college student.

Maria grew up navigating between two very different cultures, an experience that has informed her research and professional life.

“Growing up in Los Angeles, we spoke Spanish in our home and followed the traditions of Cuba, of family, food, music, and faith,” she recalls. “Outside of my home, my world was immersed in the American culture of materialism, competition, and independence.”

As a young woman, Maria says she struggled with identity as the daughter of Cuban parents with their expectations, and as an American dreaming of becoming an artist and living as an independent woman.

“I have spent most of my life navigating this `in-between’ space of these two disparate cultures, never quite fitting in, searching for identity and voice.”

Maria has heard similar stories from her Latinx clients.

“I see a variety of clients, including Latinx women. My dissertation focuses on the challenges of Latinx women and navigating the ‘in-between’ space of two cultures. I am specifically interested in the Latinx women telling her story of cultural integration through the use of art. This research will explore how the ways of knowing experienced by Latinx women, through the use of an art-based narrative, can inform and give voice to their lived experiences. In creating art that tells their stories of cultural integration, Latinx women may express their experiences in a language that is unique to their own voice. Through this process, insight may be gained in defining their identity, discovering strength, and contribute to resiliency.

Working in Canada as an art therapist, registered clinical counselor, and artist for more than 15 years, PhD candidate Jinnie Jeon has seen how art can improve older adults’ health, well-being, and quality of life.

“Having run both individual and group art therapy sessions at complex care residential centers and in a private practice setting for many years, I specialize in working with older adults on issues related to mental health and dementia; life transitions; increasing relaxation; reducing stress, loneliness and boredom; facilitating expression; improving communication (verbal and nonverbal); and most importantly, in discovering their own strength and unique voice through the language of art,” Jinnie says.

Jinnie’s research is focused on improving slow cognitive decline for older adults, especially seniors living with dementia, by using Art Therapy Assessment and Interventions methods based on the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC) framework.

“Researchers working with older adult populations have begun to recognize that art therapy is an essential part of the enhancement of older adults’ quality of life because engaging in creative activities helps balance their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social well-being,” she says.

Jinnie notes that, although there is limited evidence-based research on art therapy, there is a growing interest in art therapy as a non-pharmacological option for treating older adult populations with dementia.

“Dementia medication often results in negative side effects; therefore, non-pharmacological treatments have been recognized as enhancing the quality of life. Art therapy is also an appealing treatment for dementia because of its holistic approach to health care.”

Jinnie’s quantitative research study will provide valuable consideration of the continuous need for art therapy to assist older adults with dementia by examining the evidence-based assessment resources necessary to enhance the effectiveness of art therapy intervention. She is investigating the implications of ETC-based art therapy interventions for older adults with dementia under experimental and control conditions.

“Specifically, I will examine the efficacy of art therapy interventions to enhance cognitive functioning based on the ETC framework by engaging with older adults at a complex care residential care site located in Vancouver, Canada.

“In art therapy, older adults are invited to use a variety of art materials to explore and express their creativity and are then encouraged to share their art to understand and reflect on its importance,” Jinnie notes. “When I work with older adults, I provide a warm, playful, non-judgmental, relaxing, and safe space for them to engage in the creative art-making process, ultimately empowering them to enhance their lives and improve their cognitive function, health, well-being, lifelong learning, and growth.”

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