Sometimes words can’t be used or found to describe thoughts and feelings. But the process involved in art making, and the art itself, can help people with mental health problems explore and address their difficulties.We’ve used art psychotherapy at TEWV for more than 20 years. Recently the team has increased to six members, which means they’re now able to work with more people and in more areas.

The first thing people say when they come to a session is “I can’t draw!” says Shaun Wassall from the team. We explain that you don’t need to have artistic ability to benefit from art psychotherapy. The quality of someone’s work isn’t being judged or marked. It’s how the process of making the artwork helps the client to express and communicate their thoughts and feelings which matters.

Art psychotherapists have both an understanding of art processes and are qualified therapists. They work with individuals and groups in residential and community settings, including schools, on hospital wards and in prisons.

Some of us work with people who are selectively mute, have a speech impediment or a learning disability explains therapist Sandra Goody. But we also use art making processes to help develop an understanding of any client who may struggle to communicate how they’re feeling through speaking. It’s another way for people to express themselves.

We take our lead from the client. We don’t tell people what to do, we encourage them to explore for themselves how making art can help. Some people may feel like they have too many words. Art can help them to focus their attention and provide a mindful opportunity to access their emotions. It can also help people to develop interpersonal relationships and build trust.

The team works in a number of different clinical areas, including forensic, eating disorders and learning disability services, with children and adults and also in the tertiary psychosis team which offers mobile art therapy. Patients are referred for art psychotherapy by the trust staff looking after their care.

Meet the team…

Shaun Wassall, clinical lead art therapy – female forensic service, Ridgeway, Roseberry, Middlesbrough and dangerous and severe personality disorder service, HMP Low Newton, Durham

I have worked within the area of mental health for the best part of 19 years. Prior to this I studied fashion and textiles which led onto a career in the world of textile/costume and interior design, and as a lecturer of art and design.

Previous roles within a care setting have included nursing assistant/activity coordinator on both psychiatric intensive care unit and mother and baby environments (which is where my interest in the use of art as a means of communication began), and as a support/key worker within a supported living service for individuals with profound and severe learning disabilities/communication difficulties.

As an art psychotherapist, I was previously employed in the private sector within a male and female adult mental health unit in West Yorkshire, and have most recently taken up the post of art therapy clinical lead within the female forensic service, Ridgeway, Roseberry Park, Middlesbrough and the dangerous and sever personality disorder service, HMP Low Newton, Durham.

Fran Connolly – adult eating disorders

I work two and a quarter days a week for TEWV as an art psychotherapist as part of the Northern Centre for Eating Disorders. I work as part of the inpatient programme on Birch Ward at West Park Hospital, Darlington and the eating disorders enhanced day service at Imperial Avenue in Stockton.

I also work as a self employed artist two days a week working on textile and mural projects in a wide variety of settings.

My first degree was in Fine Art and English Literature, after which I trained to be a teacher. I taught in a wide variety of settings but ultimately decided that I needed to spend more time art making and so left teaching to pursue a career as a community artist. It was whilst working on an art project in a secure unit for young offenders that I decided to explore the idea of training as an art psychotherapist. I realised the tremendous power of art in allowing people to feel comfortable disclosing and discussing significant issues in their lives. I studied for my MA in Sheffield on the Northern Programme for Art Psychotherapy.

I have found that using art therapy with patients who have eating disorders is very effective. The most powerful element of the art therapy process is the way in which working with the art materials allows patients to access their unconscious and begin to explore and process some of the issues with which they are struggling. Creating a safe and dependable environment in which this process can take place is also very important and I am fortunate that I have been able to establish two such spaces at West Park Hospital and Imperial Avenue.

Sandra Goody – learning disabilities child and adolescent mental health services, North and South Tees

After training as a sculptor I began work in the trust in adult mental health services, working as a technical instructor and providing various art making opportunities. During these years I trained as an art psychotherapist and after qualifying in 2000 began working in children’s mental health and learning disabilities services.

I work across north and south Tees in learning disabilities child and adolescent mental health services. The work is very community based. Sessions are usually held within the schools that young people attend although I can access an art room at West Lane Hospital in Middlesbough for some sessions.

For the past four years I have co-ordinated the national special interest group for art psychotherapists who work with people who have learning disabilities. A major task for this group has been to bring about practice guidelines, a document targeted at service users and families, colleagues and commissioners.

Pat Hodgson – adult mental health, Stockton

Initially I studied fashion and textiles in Leicester. This led to me working as a knitwear designer, first in Leicester then in South Africa and from there I moved to Lesotho where I lived for several years.

On my return to the UK I worked part time as a lecturer in tapestry weaving at Cleveland College of Art and Design alongside doing supply teaching and running art classes at St Luke’s Hospital in Middlesbrough (now Roseberry Park).

I then worked as an art instructor at North Tees Hospital on the stroke and young chronic sick units. It was here I became interested in using art therapeutically.

I was seconded to train as an art therapist in 1986 and secured a place at Goldsmith’s in London. On qualifying I returned to work in adult mental health where I have remained since. I offer individual art therapy and I’m presently based in Norton, working as part of the Stockton affective disorder team.

Andy Walker – psychosis, Durham, Darlington and Teesside

Originally I trained within 3D design, which later turned into furniture and cabinet making. This later led me to pursue a career within fine art and exhibiting my own sculptural objects, also based on furniture design.  I still continue to build upon a strong portfolio of work to this day.

Whilst building on this experience and also developing my knowledge towards a teaching career, I discovered it was my persuasion to train as an art psychotherapist.

I went on to take my MA and graduated in 2007. Since then I have worked continuously for the NHS in a variety of mental health settings. These have included, a forensic low secure unit, a number of prison settings, and various community rehabilitation units.

I am now proud to say I work for this Trust as part of the tertiary psychosis team as one of the now six art therapists, offering therapies to people who are directly referred from all psychosis teams.

This experience of working within complex mental health settings has spanned a period of 12 years, and many of the artists I have worked with have taught me just how important art therapy is for rehabilitation within mental health.