Getting to the art of the matter

Art Therapist  Michael Lee  at work
Art Therapist Michael Lee at work
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MICHAEL Lee helps people talk about the things they never wanted to talk about.

But it’s not always with words.

Art Therapist  Michael Lee , at work

Art Therapist Michael Lee , at work

Michael - from Stannington - is an art therapist who works for Sheffield Mind. He deals with clients who suffer from a range of mental health problems - from anxiety to schizophrenia - and helps to establish the root of their disorder by allowing them to freely paint or draw.

“Art therapy is a really effective way to help people communicate the thoughts and experiences that are difficult to verbalise. I will look at what appears on paper and ‘wonder’ about what the images could mean.”

Michael doesn’t tell people what he thinks the problem is. Rather, he’ll observe the image, make suggesstions, and see what the client says in response.”

To find out what it’s like, I have a mini art therapy session. There’s a blank piece of paper in front of me and several neatly-packed trays of art materials. “Pick whatever you fancy working with,” he says.

I am at first overwhelmed by this open-ended brief, but he reassures me. “It doesn’t matter what you do - it dosen’t have to be anything in particular.” I choose some drawing ink and - rather unsophisticatedly - ‘blob’ it onto the paper. “You can also wet the paper first and see how it runs,” he says. Within seconds rust-orange ink is bleeding across the paper, it looks rather beautiful. I then make some marks on different part of the paper and start doodling in the corner. His observations are shrewd. “I’ve noticed that you are keeping everything separate, is that how you live your life?” It’s a question that probably requires the therapeutic equivalent of a major archaeological excavation to answer, but he’s definitely on to something.

“What happens when I observe something like that is that the client will then - if they want to - respond,” he says.

But there are several different ways in which therapists approach art therapy. “Some think a lot about the unconscious mind, others think about symbols and their association, some focus on creating a safe space in which to allow exploration of materials - the therapist / client relationship is also important and can help clients think about other relationships.”

Michael’s therapy is based on the psychoanalytical model, developed by Sigmund Freud’ in the late 19th-century. Ferud believed that human behaviour is determined, in most cases, by drives that are innate to us. These drives are often unconscious and come into conflict with the conscious mind. This conflict can manifest itself as anxiety, depression or psychosis.

Michael is in his second year of training as an art therapist. His supervisor Carol Mohamed a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, also based at Sheffield Mind, says: “Quite often your subconscious is telling you something and when it’s trying to communicate but it’s not being heard problems can appear, such as depression.”

“There is a thing called the Super Ego, which Freud believed develops and acts as a censoring process. This is why a child’s art is very pure and it’s why art therapy is so effective.”

Michael’s assessments of clients, which he does every for weeks, show that art therapy is effective at helping problems such as anxiety and can lead to an improvement in a client’s mental health. Art therapy is also one of the most effective therapies at treating schizophrenia.

It’s a tough job, and a subtle one - requiring acute sensitivity and observational skills. But it works.