Worth a Thousand Words

WHEELING – When the 16-year-old girl first arrived at Hillcrest, she had just undergone surgery to repair the cuts she made to her arm.

Her first drawing during an art therapy session summed up the way she felt: a broken heart barely held together with thin stitches. She titled it “Hanging by a Thread.”

Creative Arts therapist Valerie Fincham, who works at Hillcrest Behavioral Health and the new Robert C. Byrd Child & Adolescent Mental Health Center in Wheeling, said as the girl’s therapy progressed, her artwork changed. Her mind began to heal, much like her arm was healing.

Recognizing and sharing feelings isn’t always easy, especially for a child who is depressed. That’s where asking a child to draw or paint a picture comes in.

The fun, carefree task often helps open the door to them sharing their feelings. Known as art therapy, the program is one of four used in the Activity Therapy Department at the center in Wheeling. Fincham said in addition to painting and drawing, music, exercise and recreation are used. The children also receive nutrition counseling.

“That variety offers patients different avenues to express themselves. We have some patients who are intimidated by the idea of making artwork and others who enjoy music,” she said.

Center Director John Antal said children often have a difficult time expressing their emotions verbally.

“They can do that through their artwork. That’s also very helpful during individual sessions and family meetings because then they can show their parents what they’ve drawn or discuss it with the clinical therapist and get to a deeper understanding of what’s going on with their depression,” Antal said.

The center helps children 5 to 18 years old. In addition to cognitive therapy sessions, on weekdays they participate in three activity groups and on weekends one activity group each day. Fincham said the children are given a topic of discussion each day, but the classes are much less regimented compared to a school setting.

”Art can be a little more free spirited. … It gives them that freedom and a little bit less of that feeling of, ‘I’m doing it wrong’ or being judged – things that would happen at school or at home,” Fincham said.

As their self-esteem builds, the children become proud of what they have created and accomplished.

”The nice thing about art therapy is that they are able to express themselves in a fun manner. Kids like to draw and paint and color things, and while they’re doing that they may unconsciously be drawing out their feelings. And we can refer back to that and the light comes on above their heads – ‘Wow, now I understand,”’ Antal said.

Fincham noted the children can take their artwork home with them, but sometimes they give it to the therapists to keep or show to other children in the future.

”One of the teenage boys drew a picture of a covered bridge with darkness going into it and sunlight coming out. He said that’s what he felt he gained from our program – that he came in feeling depressed and he was leaving with a better sense of who he is and more confidence. It’s on a posterboard. He gave it to me and it’s in my office now on a wall,” Antal said.

Fincham said being an art therapist is fun work, but at the same time ”heavy and intense” because of the issues the children are dealing with.

”Seeing that it actually helps and that it can work changes how you look at things. I have a few favorites I reference on bad days, too,” she said.