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Healing With Your Hands, An Alternative For Trauma Therapy

By Evita Garza

EUGENE, Ore.— Under the fluorescent lights of the Craft Center, located on the ground
floor of the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union, members of Empower UO sit
around dusty tables and wait their turn to get their slab of clay extracted so they can start
on their homemade mugs.

Since 2015, Empower UO, a student group that supports survivors of sexual assault and
their trauma, have been hosting events called “Art for Healing.” The event hosts art
workshops once a term for the members and their friends to de-stress.

UO Senior Leanne Johnson, an active member of Empower UO since last year, says she, “is a
naturally anxious person, and looks forward to these events every term because [the
workshops] help with that. ” As she begins to mold her mug together, Johnson also recalls
attending the workshop last year when they painted canvases.

Johnson is one of many college-age students who have experienced trauma and anxiety in
her past, and is using art as a method of coping. Art therapy is an alternative to traditional
“talk therapy.” It focuses on a person’s “inner experience” as they utilize art techniques to
express any emotion they couldn’t express using words, according to Margarita
Tartakovsky M.S., the associate editor of PsychCentral. Tartakovsky also points out that
people who use art therapy range from children, elderly and young adults like Johnson.

Art therapy has been a growing method for many years, and has found success as an
alternative method, according to Carli Cortopassi, a graduate student at George Washington
University who is currently studying art therapy.

Cortopassi refers to the method as, “an emotional language. Instead of something you
would verbally communicate because of feelings and emotions someone cannot express.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders from
trauma is the most common mental illness in America, affecting 18.1 percent of adults over
the age of 18. Many of these young adults fail to seek help for mental illnesses, despite how
bad their symptoms may be, some mental health researchers say.

Erik Sorensen, a local Eugene therapist who specializes in trauma, anxiety and ADHD in
adolescence, says, “anxiety has a way of overpowering people and preventing them from
doing the things that they know they are suppose to.”
However, art therapy helps individuals suffering from different types of trauma. According
to study done by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health in
2010, a group of women who were suffering with cancer were relieved of their fear of pain,
sleeplessness, role loss and activity restriction by using visual art techniques such as
textiles, card making, collage, pottery, watercolor and acrylics.

Researchers from the US National Library of Medicine have also found that, “[art therapy
gives] the idea that creative expression can make a powerful contribution to the healing
process has been embraced in many different cultures.”

As a whole, Cortopassi says that, “[art therapy] also allows people to convey what their
feeling which helps others understand what they’re going through and be apathetic toward
that.”

Alix Brewster, a recent UO graduate and the founder of Empower UO, explains that she
started the group and created the “Art for Healing” annual event because, “they wanted to
do it inclusively.” Brewster also believes group healing is important in the process of
healing trauma, so finding an activity everyone could mutually enjoy while expressing
themselves is effective.

Brewster praises the outcome of “Art for Healing” saying that, “it’s great to see people’s
creativity and also seeing [art] work for them.”

Despite growing practices in larger metropolitan cities, places that have a smaller
population size are have limited art therapy practices in their towns and cities, says
Cortopassi. Lane County currently has one known art therapy practice, which is located in
Downtown Eugene. This practice is appointment based, and sometimes patients cannot be
seen without a recommendation. Eugene’s only practice also holds open workshops
focused on art therapy, but they are usually held by specific season. The cost for a
workshop range from $40-$60 per participant, which could set back people who may need
financial help.

Cortopassi also points out the fact that art therapy isn’t for everyone because, “everyone
heals differently.” Not everyone will invest their time into using art on a regular basis. Talk
therapy is sometimes a better option for some people, according to Cortopassi.

Luckily, Johnson says that, “crafting is a daily activity [for her]” as she gushes about her
extensive crafting collection she has at home. Johnson never used traditional therapy in the
past, but art was something that always, “made [her] feel safe.”
As she puts the finishing touches on her newly sculpted mug, Johnson says that using art,
“distracts you from current problems and you’re able to use that time to space out and
forget.”