Art Therapy in Tarpon Springs

By Robin Saenger
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Art Therapy
Stories Without Words

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Peace4Tarpon is a community initiative that began in 2010 making Tarpon Springs the first trauma-informed community in the nation.

Through ongoing research, we now know that unaddressed childhood trauma is the root cause of the mosft challenging issues we face whether in our personal, family, work life or in the larger community. These impacts on mental, emotional and physical health can have a ripple effect which often crosses generations. We also know that trauma knows no boundaries – everyone experiences trauma.

The work of Peace4Tarpon is about connecting, transforming, informing and healing our community through the most current trauma and resiliency information, and providing diverse opportunities and support for transformation and healing to all our residents.

We don’t provide direct services, rather we collaborate and facilitate with many providers and therapists who can help people with their personal healing journeys. We see healing as a process with many available doors an individual can choose to enter as they begin the often painful and difficult process to resolve their personal trauma history.

One healing method we wholly embrace is Art Therapy and several of our community partners offer this healing opportunity in their practices.
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One of Peace4Tarpon’s earliest alliances is Art Therapist Kathleen Sullivan at White Crane Clinic. In her words, here is a succinct overview of Art Therapy – “A uniquely interactive therapeutic approach that integrates psychological and developmental theory, creativity and art-making processes so that the stories of the individual, family and community can be told.”

Peace4Tarpon believes everyone has a story to tell – and listening is an act of love. Kathleen says, “The telling of a story can be the first step to recovery, growth and positive change. Empowerment and resiliency can build when the individual and their story are seen, heard and valued.”

It was Kathleen who opened my eyes to this technique when I experienced several Art Therapy sessions with her. I am an artist and know how therapeutic art can be, but Art Therapy has nothing to do with being proficient in art.

Kathleen says that sometimes people are hesitant to try Art Therapy because they “think they have to be good at art” and know how to use the materials – on the contrary, Kathleen says Art Therapy is all about the process of self-discovery and self-realization, using art materials and techniques to resolve an individual’s trauma.

The key word here is “process” and the end product is not the goal but the process which can help to take the “heaviness” out of a person’s trauma history by putting it into an external form. Art Therapy can help a person to self-regulate big emotions like fear and anger and provide a path to express those feelings – and tell a story for when there are no words to express what has happened to you.
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An art therapy image created by a person’s non-dominant hand

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It’s the discovery, exploration and gained understanding that are steppingstones to trauma resolution. Art therapists are facilitators and ask a lot of questions to help guide their clients to self-realization. Much of this work deals with the subconscious where traumatic memories are often stored in the ‘file cabinet’ of the brain. These can be retrieved in a safe manner and the images explored, similar to the dream work of Carl Jung.

To paraphrase Jung, Kathleen says, “Our dreams and our art images do not waste our time telling us what we already know.” Rather, what comes out in the form of the person’s creation is like a riddle and it’s up to you and the therapist and to discover the meaning.

One client Kathleen has worked with for several years is JoEllen. She is a professional woman with a B.S. in Social Work, a certified addiction specialist who has worked for the last 12 years with women coming out of prison. JoEllen is also a woman who has been diagnosed with Complex PTSD and has experienced severe life-threatening traumas in her life.

JoEllen says she has experienced many different healing techniques in her life such as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), yoga and traditional counseling, but art therapy came into play because the trauma JoEllen experienced was when she was pre-verbal. She explains, “Before the age of one, I had experienced multiple extreme traumas – but through the art, you don’t need language. Art Therapy has almost been a miracle healing modality to me to be able to process what happened to me before I had words to express it.”

This is a powerfully unique aspect of Art Therapy. It is a way to express what there are no words for.
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Although JoEllen’s life experiences are quite different from my own, I have found Art Therapy to be a powerful tool to address difficult moments in my own life. It is also a ‘go-to’ for me to gain insight into my life and what is happening, and where I seek more clarity and understanding. I agree that what comes out of a session is always a surprise but never fails to speak to me with a powerful and genuine voice.

Art Therapy does not depend on an end product, it’s about the process. It is for all ages and can address a wide range of mental health issues from depression and anxiety to PTSD.

In the work of trauma-healing it is vital that all avenues are explored to find the best solutions for every situation. We must avail ourselves of all possible methods as the terrain of trauma resolution is a difficult one that takes tremendous will and courage. Sometimes the journey provides a much needed respite and safe place to rest and process before continuing onward.

While Peace4Tarpon’s work is not to advise any fellow travelers on their life journey – as only they can decide if, when and how they choose to process their life experiences – it is our mission to gather and share the most up-to-date knowledge on trauma and resilience and to facilitate connections and support.

We also address our own healing work if we choose and hopefully build our resilience and increase joy and love in our own lives. That way, with a ‘full cup’ we can support our fellow travelers with a more compassionate, trauma-aware and responsive community.
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Photos courtesy of White Crane Acupuncture Clinic Art Therapy Archive

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You can download Peace4Tarpon’s Community Resource Guide here.
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