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Youth Art Month: Using Art to Help Heal Trauma

A young person painting at an easel.

March is Youth Art Month, an observance sponsored by the nonprofit Council for Art Education (CFAE) that features art shows, special exhibits, fundraisers, and other school and community activities. Volunteers around the country – including art educators, parents, librarians, leaders of youth organizations, businesspeople, and students – organize these activities celebrating youth art. While this is a chance for youth programs to build awareness and to spotlight talent, it’s also an opportunity to help young people dealing with trauma.

To find out more about how art can help young survivors of trauma, we talked to LeAnn K. Marschall, art therapist and author of “Art Therapy and Runaway Homeless Youth: An Exploration of Trauma and The Survival Response of ‘Flight’.” In her thesis, Marschall describes her experience working with a young man who was able to use his artwork to describe his trauma. Marschall has also used art therapy in shorter programs at runaway and homeless youth shelters, in both group and individual settings.

[Learn about the low-cost Art Beast Children’s Studio in Sacramento.]

Communicating Indirectly

Marschall says that art allows young people to communicate with her indirectly. “They are guarded, and distrustful at times of adults, but this idea of using art broke that down more quickly. There was something else in the room – that was the art. The art is a buffer – another relationship in the room – a triangulation rather than direct communication with the therapist. It kind of breaks down the defense more quickly.”

As a therapist, Marschall does not break the metaphor, although the client may do so. She explains, “I would never say, ‘Oh, the butterfly is you,’” for example. She notes that in a group setting the metaphor is very powerful – it can be a symbol of a person or a relationship in a more indirect way that provides safety.

[See more about how arts can help aid trauma recovery.]

Witnessing Trauma

Marschall notes that many times when young people tell an adult about a traumatic event that they are experiencing, they are dismissed. In a society that doesn’t pay attention to traumatized youth, giving them a voice through art may be more powerful than words. “Art is a physical thing that exists, and my role as a therapist was to witness this art making,” says Marschall.

Creating art can allow young people to lift the burden of trauma from their own shoulders, Marschall explains. “She could hand it to me, like ‘Here, take this [burden] from me.’”

[Discover how one youth program is raising funds with the help of youth art.]

Building Trust

Remembering one especially powerful experience, Marschall recounts the following: “A young woman was very guarded, very protected, very defensive – she made a collage about herself. She has control over what she wants to reveal. She made the art and we talked about it. As a therapist I keep the art – no one else will look at the art, but I will bring it back next session. So the next session I brought the art back to her and she literally started crying.”

The experience was powerful, Marschall notes, because she followed through with her client and did what she promised. “I told her I would keep her art and I did. I see you. I’m gonna remember you, through what you made, and I’m gonna honor that, and cherish that. That was powerful.”

The Youth Art Month theme for the 2016/2017 school year is “United through Art.” Do you want to get your Youth Art Month program started, but don’t know where to begin? Visit the CFAE website for information, timelines, guidelines, and templates to help you manage your program.

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