Using Art Therapy to Break Through Treatment Reluctance: An Interview with Naomi Tucker

Art has served the vital role of expressing the human experience for thousands of years. Regardless of form or medium, the process of creation allows us to externalize our innermost thoughts, explore the unconscious mind, give voice to that which we cannot put into words, and communicate with others and ourselves. Over the past several decades, the therapeutic community has increasingly recognized the healing power of art, and has integrated formal art therapy within mental health treatment settings to allow those struggling with psychiatric distress to experience the benefits of artistic creation. While art therapy can be an instrumental part of recovery for people with all types of mental health diagnoses, it can be particularly vital for those who are reluctant to engage in treatment.

Naomi Tucker regularly witnesses how the power of art therapy draws reluctant participants into the therapeutic process. A registered Art Therapist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, she runs the art therapy program at Bridges to Recovery. In this interview, she shares her insights into the power art therapy has to help clients overcome reluctance and more fully engage in the healing process.

The Roots of Reluctance

To understand what makes art therapy so inviting to those who are reluctant to engage in treatment, one must first understand where that reluctance comes from. “A lot of the reasons that people are reluctant to engage in treatment are issues of trust,” Naomi tells me.

Perhaps in the past they have opened up and they have been criticized or judged or hurt when they allowed themselves to be vulnerable. It may also be that they have a history of treatment not working in the past and so they think, ‘Why should I bother to open up and allow myself to engage in this process?’

Although people with any diagnosis may have experiences that damaged their ability to trust, those with histories of trauma are often particularly (and understandably) unwilling to participate.

If someone has one traumatic experience and a wonderful foundation of relationships, it’s going to be much easier to engage in the process—but if he or she didn’t have a good foundation of relationships, and then on top of that have experienced trauma or some other difficulty, it’s going to be much more likely that he or she is reluctant to engage.

Recognizing and honoring the roots of reluctance allows Naomi to approach clients in a welcoming and nonjudgmental way. “This understanding allows a client’s reluctance to become part of the treatment in a safe and supported way, instead of becoming a conflict between client and therapist.”

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Inviting Engagement, Facilitating Expression

Naomi believes that the open nature of art therapy makes it uniquely inviting for those clients who struggle with the therapeutic process. Rather than being expected to put thoughts and feelings into words and interact in a highly structured way, art therapy is free-flowing and easily adaptable to different kinds of participation. The level of interaction is determined by each person’s own needs and wants; those who do not wish to share with others are able to use art therapy as an introspective practice in which they can engage in a deeply personal process of creation without having to meet anyone else’s expectations or go beyond their comfort level.

If they come in and they are guarded and not wanting to share, they can simply participate in the process of creating an art piece, and then choose how much or how little to share with the group members and the therapist. What is so special about this is that they can have their own internal and personal process in the group setting, and it’s safe for them to do that—there isn’t an expectation that they have to move beyond that before they are ready to.

As a nonverbal form of healing, art therapy also opens up room for exploring and expressing oneself beyond spoken language. “For someone who is reluctant, art therapy can provide a space to begin to explore and look at his or her challenges, but not have to actually say them out loud,” Naomi tells me. “That is helpful because when people begin to explore or share their pain, they often don’t have words for it yet.” In fact, words themselves may be limiting and unable to truly capture the reality of someone’s experience. “There aren’t always words, and once you choose a word it takes you in a particular direction and understanding, and there may be other aspects of the experience that weren’t included in that word or language.” By operating outside of the boundaries of words, art provides the opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves and process our experiences without being confined to the limits of language.

Personalizing Art Therapy

The versatility and flexibility of art therapy allow Naomi to create therapeutic experiences that speak to the needs of each individual within the group. She believes that the therapy should give clients the ability to participate in a way that speaks to them—and that can look different for each person. This begins by framing art therapy directives—the instructions given to guide each art therapy session—as invitations.

I like to call them invitations, because I am inviting them to participate in a particular way, but if they are drawn to do something else in their own personal process, then I welcome that. One of the powerful things about art is that it can be approached and understood in many different ways.The art therapy process can be tailored to the client based on what he or she is needing in that moment; each client can have an individual, personal experience of art-making and then have a chance to process it with the group.

When given the ability to make choices about their own participation, people who are reluctant to engage in treatment often feel an increased sense of agency and control over their own therapeutic process, reducing feelings of trepidation and vulnerability. For those who struggle with trust issues, this can be a powerful experience that allows them to feel safe enough to engage.

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Creating Paths to Healing

During her time at Bridges, Naomi has seen art therapy act as a pathway for therapeutic engagement and healing, even for those who profoundly struggled with participation.

There are many people who come through the program and are surprised to find that they are able to engage with art, that it’s useful, and that it helps them open up more with the other group members—and then they feel safe opening up more in individual therapy and other groups as well.

Often, the discoveries made during the creative process open up new opportunities for participation within other forms of therapy, and Naomi encourages clients to bring their artwork into other settings to continue their process of self-exploration. With a comprehensive curriculum of therapies available, clients at Bridges are given many opportunities for transferring the insights made in art therapy into other arenas.

Naomi believes that this diverse and multidimensional approach to healing is one of Bridges to Recovery’s greatest strengths.

Bridges to Recover offers so many different modalities that people can typically find something that works for them. There are so many access points and so many avenues where someone has the possibility to open up. Once they open up in one space, it becomes easier to open up in other spaces.

Bridges to Recovery offers residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse, eating disorders, and process addictions. We use a comprehensive spectrum of evidence-based clinical and holistic therapies to create truly transformative treatment experiences that lay the foundation for sustainable wellness. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.