By Rebeca Carvajal, LAYC mental health counselor
LAYC youth face many mental health challenges that can stem from complex family issues, homelessness, substance use, immigration status, and trauma. As a mental health counselor with a Master of Art Therapy degree, I regularly integrate art therapy techniques in my counseling work to connect with youth and facilitate constructive processes of expression, reflection, and healing.
First and foremost, my counseling sessions provide a private and safe space for youth to talk about anything they are thinking about or experiencing. As I build a relationship with each youth, I may encourage them to create a symbol or animal that represents them, draw what anger looks like in their body, or create an expressive self-portrait. I also encourage youth to engage in soothing art activities, such as working in a coloring book or writing in a journal; this can help them feel grounded and safe, soothing anxiety and re-focusing attention away from destructive thoughts and behaviors.
I have found that art therapy helps youth express memories, both painful and joyful, which cannot be described with words. They share with me many different personal stories of experiences immigrating/crossing the border, feelings of loss and grief due to leaving their home country, witnessing gang violence or domestic violence, or being bullied in school. While talking about their drawings, such as a memory of their country, or a monster they see in their nightmares, they come to feel understood and safe. This strengthens their relationship with me, their counselor; enabling them to confront, share, and reflect on difficult memories and emotions.
Through art therapy, coupled with other clinical techniques, counselors like me are able to enhance counselor-youth communication, individual reflection, and relaxation. As a result, youth begin to see themselves in new ways, experience reduced anxiety, and begin to build self- esteem and other coping skills.
When asked about the benefit of art therapy activities, Jorge* commented:
“I like it because it’s a way for me to relax and learn about what I am feeling through the art…It makes me reflect on what I am doing and feeling.”
*name changed for privacy.