Arts / The Mental Health Issue

Incarcerated Identity

November 15th, 2017

How the Field of Creative Social Work and Art Therapy is a source of hope.

Trauma and Mental Illness is something that has touched everyone’s lives. If it isn’t personally experienced, it will be experienced by someone close to you. It is not always clear how to process trauma and what works for one person may not work for another. One emerging option for people is something called Art Therapy. In a broad sense, it is a field of study dedicated to using artistic endeavours to aid in the processing and coping with certain types of trauma. Denica Bleau is currently working on her Masters in Social Work here at UBCO and spent four months in Scottish prisons during her Bachelor degree practicum.

Curtis: When did you do your practicum in Scotland?

Denica: Last year, January 2016. It was part of my bachelor’s program. I was the only person to leave the country, so I had to set it all up myself. I was there for six months, four of those spent completing my practicum and two spent travelling.

C: So how many people within the prisons did you work with?

D: They don’t necessarily refer to it as Art Therapy in Scotland; art in prison is often just called Art Classes. We have some art classes in Canadian prisons, but the programs are advanced within the UK. I worked with the Scottish Prison Arts Network (SPAN), which is based in Stirling, and I bounced between Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling. I spent a lot of time at the woman’s prison located in Stirling. The lady I was working with in the prison was an art teacher, and she would work with individuals in prison to create art and helped individuals confront the emotional components that are intertwined to the process of creating. I would interview the ladies in the art class one on one and ask what their experience was with art and if they were taking anything, mentally or relationally, from the art process. While interviewing one particular woman, another woman spoke up and said, “Art’s bulls**t, it hasn’t done anything to me.” She kept telling her friend that everything she was saying about art was bulls**t. After I finished interviewing her friend, I talked with her. She said the important element of prison was being able to go to school, but after talking about school for a bit she switched to showing me the art based projects she was working on. She made a bunch of art based projects for her niece, like a doll and storybook. So, I asked what this had done for her and her niece’s relationship, and she responded with, “Well I don’t think we would have one if I didn’t.” I replied back with, “So is art still s**t to you?” She saw how art was helpful in this instance, but her thoughts on art were that she didn’t like sharing her feelings through art and so she was shut off for the reason that everyone would ask how it made her feel. Making the things for her niece did make her feel good, but she had internalized that she needed to focus on academics as a means of self-improvement. As we discussed the art, she realized how it was boosting her self-esteem and confidence and how creating the doll helped her forget that she was in prison. It helped her focus on parts of her identity outside of being a “prisoner,” so it helped her create a new identity.

C: That’s super interesting, that in the same meeting she went from being closed off towards art to seeing that it is actually helping her. So how many people did you have a chance to work with or interview?

D: It’s hard to say how many people I worked with as my involvement was with quite a few people both within prison and people who were previously incarcerated. Since I was a student, I was more under a mentorship trying to see actual results from the research I was reading about the subject. In Scotland, they have great programs. They had a magazine called Stir developed in the high-security prison. This was the first prison I visited, which was pretty intense. My supervisor and I went in and talked to the people who were working on the magazine. They were learning how to create layouts and taking the art pieces from the different prisons and putting it in this publication. They were telling us how it has helped them form a new identity. In Scotland, they don’t call people inmates or prisoners; they refer to people as “those who have been/are incarcerated”

 

“Since I was a student, I was more under a mentorship trying to see actual results from the research I was reading about the subject.”

 

C: That’s a smart idea, so it doesn’t become how they identify themselves. In your research have you found certain types of trauma or mental health issues are most successfully treated with Art Therapy?

D: I haven’t explicitly been able to research pre-test, post-test, “this is the results,” but in critically appraising of research I’ve noticed the impact of art with intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities. Using a decolonized method, since Art is very prevalent in many Indigenous nations in Canada, using art as a means of expressing and reclaiming culture and confronting intergenerational trauma. There is also evidence-based research of art alleviating depression within prisons, increasing self-esteem and sustaining relationships outside of prison.

It was very enlightening being able to sit down and speak with Denica about creative Social Work and how Art Therapy is starting to show an impact on not only prisoners but Indigenous community members and many others as well. For myself, the findings dictate that the desire to create usually stems from trauma being internally provoked. The most creative periods personally are those fuelled by trauma and the processing that ensues once it has come to the surface. It was inspiring discussing the rise of Art Therapy and just how beneficial one’s creative mind can be for processing stressful events and even crafting new identities. It brings hope to many who cannot benefit from conventional methods and can inspire new interpretations of identity and help decolonize one’s cultural identity.

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