Art as Medicine in Teen Mental Health Treatment

By Jenny Sherman

As children, we practice artistic expression without even meaning to. We role play, scribble, finger paint, write, sing and dance with abandon. When we were young, communicating through art was intrinsic – often times easier than using our words. As we grow older, there is less encouragement to express ourselves as freely as we once did. There are constructs within society, unspoken rules, which keep us from expressing ourselves as we once did. Emotional pain, in particular, can be difficult if not impossible to talk about. The continuum of Expressive Arts Therapies provides participants at Paradigm an outlet to tell their stories, share their experiences, and access their emotional material through a variety of disciplines. Among the most popular modalities are:

  • Art Therapy
  • Music Therapy
  • Drama Therapy
  • Dance/Movement Therapy
  • Written/Narrative Therapy

While more traditional talk therapies are integral to the Paradigm Treatment treatment model, the Expressive Arts Therapy Continuum is designed specifically to allow young people to explore and work through issues in non-verbal ways, often times yielding powerful results.


Art Therapy

Cole Rucker, Co-Founder of Paradigm Treatment is quick to address misgivings others may have.

“I think too many people mistake Art Therapy for arts and crafts. While the latter can have therapeutic value, the former is much more meaningful. Art Therapy is conducted by licensed Art Therapists who approach every session with specific therapeutic intent. The value of the clinical information gleaned from these modalities can not be over stated,” Rucker notes.

Paradigm’s Art Therapist Hilary Kern believes that, through artistic expression, teens are able “to think creatively, to explore in a safe environment, to further treatment goals.” Giving a teen a paintbrush is in essence, giving them a tool with which to explore, with absolute freedom, the depths of their internal struggles. The expression of those struggles are shown through their art, and the art itself is its own kind of speech. Teens can say whatever they want without having to say anything at all. The painting, the sketching—the art can do all the talking, and it can say a lot. Because of the organic and unforced manner in which thoughts and feelings are being expressed, Art Therapy “provid[es] a safe outlet for an individual to acknowledge and explore feelings.”


Music Therapy

When teens are expressing themselves through the arts, they are “getting out of their logical, selves and getting deeper into the subconscious,” according to Music Therapist Summer Mencher. And that’s where the real work happens,” she says. “It can feel less threatening. It can be more fun. It’s often a way people connect and relate to one another…by what kind of music they like. So it’s a great way to start connections early.” In Musk Therapy, teens don’t need to know anything about playing a musical instrument. They merely use the sounds an instrument makes to play out their emotions.

Summer will instruct them, “Let’s all play… angry, and then express that on a drum. They can play memories… the future, [they] can play the past… play [their] dreams.” One teen’s “sad” might sound completely different from another teen’s “sad,” their “happy” might sound different from another’s. Being able to hear through beats and tempos, and feel through waves and vibrations, how people feel inside, can be a stirring experience.


Drama Therapy

Drama Therapy is another dynamic expression vehicle. Body language tells its own story, and role play allows for the ability to act out scenes from real life, sometimes acting out each personality involved. Drama Therapist Elizabeth Malone explains that Drama Therapy is a reflective medium for teens to understand themselves better through role-play. Such exercises, “allow [teens] to take a really small part of life and magnify it, so that [they] can see a lot of details that [they] might not have seen before, might have missed.” Teens are given a forum in which to act out moments in their lives and see situations, and the players, involved in a different context. When teens view their lives in that different context, it paves the way for a better understanding of their relationships with family or friends, and the role that they, themselves play.


Dance/Movement Therapy

Many young people enjoy opportunities to participate in Dance/ Movement Therapy. According to Dr. Lori Baudino, “Dance/ Movement Therapy is based on the empirically supported premise that the body and mind are interconnected.” Dr. Baudino describes this modality as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.” She goes on to explain, “Body movement, as the core component of dance, simultaneously provides a means of assessment and the mode of intervention for a full range of emotional health issues. Dr. Baudino concludes, “Little is more rewarding to me than seeing young people learn to be present in their bodies, fully expressing themselves through dance.”


Written/Narrative Therapy

Written/Narrative Therapies also provide pivotal experiences for youth. According to Dr. Steve Oh, lead Clinician at Paradigm’s Point Dume program, “Narrative therapies assume that people have a wealth of skills, strengths, interests, and abilities that will help them reduce the influence of emotional and behavioral health difficulties in their lives.” He goes on to state, “One of the highlights of treatment for a lot of youth at Paradigm is writing and sharing their life stories. The material presented is then processed in a respectful, non-blaming approach which centers people as the experts in their own lives.”


A paintbrush, a drum, a role play, a dance step, or a pen—all powerful tools for adolescents who are teeming with caged emotions. Through the Expressive Arts Therapy Program at Paradigm, using colors, sounds, sights and movement, teens begin to become the authors of their own lives.