AUSTIN, Texas—Addiction treatment providers are increasingly utilizing art therapy as a form of treatment to aid clients who do not respond to more traditional methods of healing. This specialized approach is more relevant than ever as people grapple with the uncertainties of the current situation around COVID-19 while simultaneously struggling with substance abuse.
“Art therapy engages different aspects of the brain than regular talk therapy,” said Maryse Saffle, Austin Recovery experiential coordinator. “A client’s defenses will be less activated, and they can access the deeper strata of the psyche, often protected by strong ego defenses, especially in clients who have experienced trauma.”
The usage of art therapy is growing in the treatment field as professionals acknowledge that methods should be individualized to meet each specific client’s needs. Engaging clients’ imaginations and creativity allows them to express themselves non-verbally in a healthy and productive manner, as opposed to turning to substances. Art therapy helps individuals express thoughts and feelings they may not be able to put into words, and it is especially useful for those with underlying psychological issues related to their addiction, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Saffle serves clients with a variety of art techniques, including mandala drawing and painting at Austin Recovery’s residential treatment facility, the Hicks Family Ranch, where clients undergo programs ranging from 30 to 90 days. She is a former client, and has now worked at Austin Recovery for more than a decade. Musical journey is another form of experiential therapy Saffle incorporates into her work, utilizing holotropic breathwork and music to guide participants into a state in which they can achieve inner healing.
“This form of art therapy also invokes the use of metaphors which can give a broader view of the particular issue clients are struggling with. Experiential methods can bypass the ego defenses and access the true self, where clients experience themselves as much more than the addict self,” Saffle said. This work at the Hicks Family Ranch is often cited as a breakthrough point in the course of clients’ treatment.
At Austin Recovery’s outpatient treatment facility, the Edith Royal campus, Sarah Billingsley, women’s outpatient counselor, also integrates art therapy approaches when treating her clients. She works with the women in her program, providing individual and group therapy sessions that last from 10 to 12 weeks.
“The benefits of incorporating art into addiction treatment is the main assumption that the client will be able to express themselves through a non-verbal, imaginative and creative exercise. The majority of art therapy techniques for clients with substance use disorders employ a creative process, whereby the client is creating art, but some select applications include interpretation and contemplation of established works of art,” Billingsley said, noting that this type of treatment has actually been used to manage addiction since the 1950s.
Billingsley knows the benefits of less conventional methods of addiction treatment first-hand—she is in recovery herself after years of active addiction.
“What drew me to this work was my own struggle,” Billingsley said. She became sober in 2003 and then earned a master’s degree in social work. After personal involvement in the criminal justice system, Billingsley knew she wanted to dedicate her life to helping others like her, and art therapy became a vital part of that process.
“It includes an array of activities, including incident drawings—drawing of an incident that occurred while using substances—painting emotions, stress painting during times of anxiety or stress to relieve those feelings, creating an art journal and creating sculptures,” Billingsley said.
Earlier this spring, the counselors at the outpatient facility began a client rock garden comprised of hand-painted rocks painted maintained by the clients, both contributing to the beautification of the facility as well as aiding their own sobriety process. Other activities Billingsley has begun incorporating into her sessions include painting and gratitude exercises.
“It’s mainly an outlet for the clients to express themselves in how they are feeling on this specific day or in their recovery at this time and helping with any other mental health diagnosis. When we conduct a curriculum course, we have the ladies paint rocks at the same time, so not only are they able to enjoy themselves, but they can express themselves while learning the core curriculum,” Billingsley said.
Fiscal Year 2019 Statistics
In Fiscal Year 2019, from September 1, 2018 to August 31, 2019, Austin Recovery served a total of 973 unique clients with a total of 1,227 treatment episodes across all programs. It is common for Austin Recovery clients to participate in more than one program within the agency as they access services across the full continuum of addiction care.