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Can art therapy be an alternative for mental health care

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a class project originally initiated in the classroom of Ball State University professor Adam Kuban in fall 2021. Kuban continued the project this spring semester, challenging his students to find sustainability efforts in the Muncie area and pitch their ideas to Ron Wilkins, interim editor of The Star Press, Journal & Courier and Palladium-Item. This spring, stories related to health care will be featured.

MUNCIE, Ind. — A Mental Health America study indicated in 2022 that more than 50 million Americans will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The data also found that Indiana ranks 37th with 22.2% on the list with higher prevalence of mental illness for adults and insufficient access to help.

In contrast, a 2008-2009 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that in Indiana, only 5.71-6.44% of people 18 years of age or older experienced a serious mental illness.  

Indiana ranked 37th out of 50 states with limited access for adults seeking to get help from the Mental Health America study, suggesting that many Hoosiers might not know the options available to them. Traditional one-on-one talking therapy is not always the best option for everyone, according to Charlene Kehoe, who owns a newly adopted nonprofit called Start With Art. 

One alternative is art therapy, an expressive therapy that goes beyond traditional talk therapy. This form of therapy uses different tactics to express emotions while engaging your mind, fostering the start of healthy coping skills through activities like painting, drawing or sculpting.  

This allows individuals to articulate their feelings without relying on using their words, which can be challenging when expressing emotions and talking about experiences. 

Kehoe, an army veteran and mother from Winchester, Indiana, saw that art therapy held a positive impact on her own daughter and her coping skills amid life’s challenges.  

“This past year, my daughter struggled with severe mental health issues, and one of the main things that helped her was art projects — finding different things to express herself outside of just keeping those things stuck in her head,” Kehoe said.  

Kehoe said she realized more children and adults needed an outlet and safe space to practice this therapy, so Kehoe opened a business called Start With Art, drawing inspiration from her daughter’s experience with art therapy.  

She emphasized that, especially for children, it can be hard to go to a therapist, with whom they are likely not familiar, and tell them how they feel with words.

“What helped my daughter get out how she feels was exercising her mind with art,” Kehoe said. “She doesn’t do good with one-on-one talking types of therapy, and I think other kids and even adults can relate to that.”  

Start With Art is in its early stages; however, Kehoe said that classes should start in summer. All art classes will be taught by volunteers and will offer a wide range of different types of art — free of charge.  

While Start With Art will not be staffed with licensed mental health therapists or counselors, Kehoe envisions her nonprofit to be a resource and a safe space.

Kehoe’s daughter, Avery, inspired by her own positive experience practicing art therapy, wanted to make art therapy accessible to other children by creating an art box. She, along with others, donate art supplies to the box to always make it readily accessible.

The box is called “Avery’s Mental Health Matters Art Box” and sits decorated inside the Centerstone Counseling Center building in Winchester.  

“She (Avery) said to me, ‘I wish kids had the same opportunities I do to do art projects because some people do not have the financial means to do those things,’ and that’s what started the ball rolling,” Kehoe said.

Kehoe is not the only one practicing this type of therapy in Indiana.  

Allie Bishop, a licensed art therapist and mental health therapist, owns Art of the Heart in Indianapolis, roughly 87 miles from Winchester. Unlike Kehoe’s nonprofit, Bishop’s business combines talking therapy with art. Bishop’s philosophy is not to discredit traditional therapy but to use her services as another tool in healing for children and adults.  

“I wouldn’t say that (art therapy) is more beneficial, rather, another powerful and accessible approach to self-discovery and healing,” Bishop said. “Often, those that have experienced trauma have trouble accessing their full scope of feelings and memories via language. Art can be an alternate form of self-expression.”   

Art of the Heart does not just offer art therapy services but other unique forms of therapy including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a type of therapy method that helps the brain process traumatic memories by using eye movements and stimulation. 

During Bishop’s art therapy sessions, however, clients can expect to use creativity to form a better connection with themselves. Bishop makes it clear on her website that it is not an art class, as she is not an art teacher, but instead she uses materials for individuals to help discover themselves.

She offers sessions that can go through insurances like Anthem and CareSource, although this isn’t the case for most alternatives to therapy such as art therapy and even more common types of mental health care.  

According to a 2018 study by Dr. Susan Busch and Kelly Kyanko, published in “Assessment of Perceptions of Mental Health vs. Medical Health Plan Networks Among U.S. Adults with Private Insurance,” the survey found that people perceived their mental health provider networks through their insurance to be inadequate. This study also suggested that there needs to be more consistent and accessible mental health care in the U.S.  

Bishops’ hope for Indiana is that covered art therapy can become more accessible throughout the state and the country.  

“I would love for the field to be more accessible. Currently only a few states allow insurance to cover art therapy services. Several state-level art-therapy-association chapters are pushing for this to change,” Bishop said.

In an article published by American Art Therapy Association, there are only 15 states with licensed art therapists. 

According to the American Art Therapy Association, there are 19 licensed art therapy programs in the state of Indiana. Art therapy and talk therapy are not the only alternatives. There is music therapy, exposure therapy and family/group therapy.  

One of Kehoe’s priorities for her nonprofit is to be a stepping stone for children, parents, and adult education on affordable and different options for getting help. She said when Start With Art opens, she will make handouts with information about options for nearby mental health care facilities.  

Rayshena Jones, a licensed outpatient therapist for Firefly Children & Family Alliance, which has 20 locations across Indiana mainly located in Central/East Central Indiana, said talking and expressing life’s struggles through any type of therapy can benefit individuals’ cognitive growth.  

“In therapy, clients can identify the problem that is causing stress and find solutions,” Jones said. “Therapy encourages clients to explore the need for change through self-exploration. Therapy challenges clients, allowing them to improve their quality of life by examining patterns of behaviors. In therapy, clients can practice self-reflection and awareness which promotes personal growth.” 

Art therapy is not just for individuals who are good at art, Bishop said.   

“Everyone should have an open mind when considering the practices of art therapy and non-traditional forms of mental health care,” Bishop said. “Growth comes from stepping outside your comfort zone. Even if you aren’t sure, give it a shot and see what your experience can be.” 

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