This article first appeared in Straits Times Recruit on 23 Nov 2002 and is written by LEONG PIK YIN. is archiving his article on a compassionate basis so that Singaporeans can learn how to access Art Therapy should they or their loved ones require it.


Draw Them Out
The number of children seeking psychiatric help has doubled over the last 10 years in Singapore. LEONG PIK YIN finds out how the unusual profession of art therapy can help relieve both the young and old of the unbearable burdens in their lives.

It is not just what you draw, but how you draw it that reveals the state of your mind, said Ms Stephanie Yang, 35, an activity therapist at Mount Elizabeth-Charter Behavioural Health Services. She is trained in both art and play therapy.

“It’s also the textures and colours you use, where you place different objects, and so on. Your art says a lot about you. It reflects a patient’s psychological reality.”

Art therapy is still very new in Singapore but it is slowly gaining ground, said Ms Yang.

She uses art as a tool in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems and disorders.

“Our society is starting to appreciate art therapy more. I believe it has great potential here.”

Not a new concept

Art therapy may seem like a new concept here, but it dates as far back as the 1930s, according to the American Art Therapy Association, which was set up in 1969.

At that time, psychiatrists started studying the artwork done by patients and saw that there was a link between a patient’s artwork and his illness.

Art educators also found that the artwork created spontaneously by children were expressions of their emotions. Since then, art therapy has developed into a recognised profession.

“Employment opportunities for art therapists in countries like the United States are very broad,” said Ms Yang, a Taiwan-born American who is married to a Singaporean. “You can work in a hospital, nursing home, halfway house or a school, for example. It is more limited in Singapore, but there is a need for art therapists here because there is a shortage of trained people.”

Art therapy courses are available in a number of universities, such as New York University, the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, and La Trobe University in Australia.

Some require a psychology degree, while others accept candidates with a fine arts degree.

“You don’t need to be a good artist to practise art therapy,” said Ms Yang, who has a degree in psychology. “But you have to at least feel comfortable with art and have some liking for it.”

When art mimics life

The need for art therapists, as well as other mental health professionals, is getting more pressing, if statistics are anything to go by.

A 1998 study revealed that 9.3 per cent of adults here suffer from anxiety disorders and 7.8 per cent suffer from depression.

Children are also at risk, too.

Ministry of Health statistics showed that the number of new cases of people under 18 visiting psychiatrists at government-run outpatient clinics more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. Half were of primary school age.

Art therapy can help in finding out how the patient sees the world, said Ms Yang. “It works wonderfully for people of all ages. The youngest person I’ve worked with was three, while the oldest was 92.”

Ms Yang works with materials like pastels, clay or watercolours to create products that are meaningful to the patient, she said. “We have methods to guide them, but we never make decisions for them.”

For patients who refuse to talk, art helps to break down their defences, she added. “It is a non-verbal form of communication and is less threatening. It helps them release anxiety.”

An art therapist has to be familiar with different psychological conditions and the effects of medication on a person. He also needs to know about art materials, how to use them, and for whom they are suitable.

Watercolours, for instance, are more difficult to control and are not appropriate for someone who has problems with hand-eye coordination. The therapist needs to know all this to help patients avoid frustration.

“In terms of diagnosis, there are general principles you can apply, but you also have to look at the individual and consider many other factors. You can’t assume that everyone who draws in circles is feeling lost and depressed,” said Ms Yang.

Art therapists also need to work with a team of counsellors, nurses and doctors to get the complete picture.

Making a difference

Ms Yang chose this profession because she wants to make a difference in people’s lives. “I know what it is like to feel lost, demoralised and powerless, so I want to help others,” she said.

People with mental disorders have a greater disadvantage, and without help, they will be left behind in today’s fast-moving world, she warned. “We never ask someone why he or she has cancer as we know it’s not their fault. But it’s not the same for someone with a mental disorder.

“There’s a lot of cultural baggage about mental illness. In Western countries, people are more open about seeking help. But in Asian cultures, it is seen as shameful. When people finally seek help, they are often already in bad shape. This can be prevented.”

Art therapy is therefore her way of reaching out to people.

“It refreshes their understanding of who they are, builds up their self-confidence and helps them cope better with their feelings.”

How to Deal with learning difficulties

Mount Elizabeth-Charter Behavioural Health Services is organising a forum on Learning Difficulties — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders for today. But as all 180 places for the forum have been taken, Mount Elizabeth-Charter will organise another session next January for those who have missed out. The forum will cover three topics: Learning difficulties and attention deficit in children by Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist; how to build up your child’s self-esteem and confidence by therapist Denese MacDonald; and how to help your child through art and play therapy by activity therapist Stephanie Yang.

Date: One Saturday in January 2003 (to be confirmed)

Time: 2 to 5 pm

Venue: Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, Level 2, Seminar Room

Fee: $10 per person (includes refreshments)
To register, call 6731-2835.