«The changes in the children’s behavior after an art therapy session impress me again and again.»

Prof. Dr. med. Bernhard Frey, University Children’s Hospital Zürich

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Creativity Heals

Art Therapy in psychiatry

Nadia, 17, is admitted to the hospital with a life-threatening weight loss; she’s been suffering from anorexia for three years now.
The first time, she’s pretty quiet and doesn’t feel like talking. The art therapist suggests painting and invites her to play with colors, without achieving a result at all costs.

Drawing of Nadia trying to break the vicious circle of anorexia.

She relaxes and, as the sessions progress, expresses herself through the paint and images she stages. She begins to talk about her illness and to understand what drove her to self-destruction.


She can give form to her fears and anxieties: “When I paint, I feel good”.
She creates a painting depicting the vicious circle of her illness. After a while, she resumes her production, and decides she doesn’t want it anymore.
After five months, Nadia is able to leave the hospital, feeling much happier and livelier. Before leaving, she told the art therapist: “I haven’t won yet, but I have the strength to fight my illness, because I want to get through it.”

*name changed

Art Therapy in Intensive care

For several months, Geneviève was accompanied by us art therapists in the intensive care unit. 
This 13-year-old girl is severely physically handicapped by her illness and can only communicate with her eyes. A yes means she blinks, a no means her big green eyes with their long lashes roll back and forth. It soon became clear that she loves to paint, preferably with her hands, but that she needs our help to do so.

It’s she who decides which colours to spread across the page and which movements her hands and arms make. Waves, dots, lines, circles… She always wants to mix the colours and spread them out, so that the whole sheet becomes grey or brown, rather dark. She calls them “frustration paintings”, as her mother says, and she’s convinced that it’s good for Geneviève to let off a bit of steam. The bigger the mess, the bigger the joy. 

A long process through much pain, frustration and sadness. The images turn into a cloudy sky, a dark night… then come the stars, there can hardly be enough of them, they have to shine golden. She became the architect of her work and asked the art therapist to fill in the stars with glue and gold leaf. She watches with pleasure as the delicate gold is distributed, waits patiently for it to dry, and when the painting is finished, her eyes shine like two luminous stars.
Geneviève’s mother is very grateful that her daughter has moments when she can experience something beautiful during her long stay in hospital.

Art Therapy in Oncology

When a child is diagnosed with a malignant tumor, leukemia or another type of cancer, shattering experience for the whole family.

Already in the corridor, on the way to the hospital room, a certain oppression and uncertainty can be felt as a heavy burden. The chemotherapy is still unfamiliar, and the children have to courageously endure a lot of procedures: examinations, blood samples, medications, nausea, fatigue. The whole family has to reorganize itself with the care, and the days in the room are long, marked by many upsets and also unspoken fears.

Art therapy offers a wide range of possibilities and can be used in different situations. For example, it can be used to divert attention from pain, distance from loved ones and boredom.

It can be observed that the mood changes to the positive, some lightness and playfulness is allowed to blossom. New energy can be released and have a very invigorating aspect. The creative, non-verbal activity strengthens the child in its self-determination and its resources. Art therapy cannot cure an illness, but it can help on the road to recovery.

Case example: Art therapy sessions with an eight-year-old boy with an oncologic disease.

The boy would like to be healthy like his brother and the grief of his parents is weighing on him. During our therapy session, he is combative and strong, and it is especially nice to see how motivated he is to paint. He wants me to paint with him. He tells a story about a family who, on a beautiful trip to the forest, is suddenly surprised by a violent storm. Then a long silence. The painting sequence lasts a good 45 minutes and we are both amazed at how quickly the time has passed. The boy is enthusiastic and thinks that it has really done him good. Satisfied and proud of his work, he leans back.

When his mother returned, she was visibly moved and happy, as she noticed that her son’s mood was much better. This session allowed him to express his feelings. The mother emphasizes the importance of this therapeutic offer, which seems to be the ideal outlet for her son. The drawings, of great importance, will be hung on the wall of the house.

Art Therapy in Psychiatry

Therapeutic journey of a young patient who benefited from art therapy sessions.

  This is the story of a young boy, Thomas (not his real name), who did not have an easy start in life. At the age of 7, Thomas has already experienced many breakdowns and knows about emergency shelters, having been placed there several times.

Hospitalized in a child psychiatry department, his medical journey is already quite long. As he communicates very little, art therapy sessions are recommended by the medical team.

But the idea of one more therapy does not enthuse Thomas and during the first sessions, he does not say a word. It is through the exchange of drawings that the art therapist enters into communication with him and gradually establishes a relationship of trust with Thomas.

After several sessions, the art therapist suggested that he work with cardboard boxes. He then chose to build a car, one that would take him to his native country. The first words are shared and he likes the idea of leaving with his car so much that he leaves his study group at the care center several times to find his car.

 As the sessions progressed, Thomas took more and more possession of the boxes and transformed his car into a camper. He set up a bed, a sink, a toilet and a GPS to help him find his way. The sessions turn into a trip around the world.

 “The journey will be long, and it will take patience” he comments.

 Accompanied by the art therapist, equipped with his map and his cardboard passport, Thomas crosses cities and regions to reach his country, that of his family.

 Creativity and imagination allow the therapist to engage with Thomas on painful subjects without the use of words, but through creative play.

 Thomas then creates rabbit cages, with beds and toys. He is concerned about their well-being and safety. After more than six months of weekly sessions, he agrees to work on body feelings. Through the making of bread and mixing of textures, Thomas opens up to the art therapist and talks about the sensations he likes or dislikes.

 Each piece of work created is an opportunity for the art therapist to engage with the child about his emotions, his needs, his experiences. Art therapy has allowed young Thomas to find the path to recovery.

Art Therapy in a Children’s Hospital
In the therapy sessions, I focus entirely on the child’s needs and situation. It is important for me to focus on the healthy issue of the child and to support its autonomy. In this lesson, the child is allowed to say yes and no and choose for him/herself. Here, the focus is not on language but on the child’s own actions, thus enabling the unspoken to find expression. Artistic activity strengthens resources and enables the child to act on his or her own initiative in everyday hospital life. It fills me with great gratitude and joy when I can observe how the child relaxes more and more, so that the current situation recedes into the background, giving way to a creative cheerfulness.
Music Therapy in Psychiatry
Sabine* 16 years old, is hospitalised due to anorexia. For Sabine, music therapy was an important outlet for both non-verbal and verbal expression. In every lesson she managed to discover something for herself and to dare to try something new. These experiences can be like individual mosaic stones. Several mosaic stones together form a picture. In this picture, their self-esteem, which can become stronger, also plays an important role. Sabine’s curious and open attitude supports her in this confrontation.
*Name changed
Music Therapy in Neonatology
“Oh happy day”
A big thank you to the ART-THERAPIE Foundation and the team of authors of the lullaby book. Lisa*, a premature baby, has been in intensive care for several weeks. Lisa’s mother comes to see her youngest daughter every morning at 5 o’clock – there are three siblings at home. My idea was that I would put the “song book” next to the isolette with a note for the mother.
“Oh happy day”, today the whole family visited little Lisa thanks to the school holidays. Tears glistened in Ms D’s eyes when she later came into the waiting room where I was playing music with the three children: “We know “Idas Sommervisa”, I am Swedish”. Mummy sang the summer song with her group of children – the sun was shining in the waiting room of the intensive care unit.
The sensitive and fine gift has found its way into the hearts of the patients, relatives and the art therapist at the Cantonal Hospital of the Grisons in no time at all.
*Name changed

Music Therapy in Psychiatry

“Emma (not her real name), an 8-year-old girl, was admitted to hospital with anorexia nervosa for 5 weeks. Despite her very young age, Emma showed several symptoms of anorexia nervosa: voluntary weight loss with compensatory behaviours (sport), major preoccupation with her weight and a distorted image of her body (she sees herself as fat even though she weighs 23 kg), obsessive thoughts (voice telling her not to eat) and a strong need for control. She was admitted to hospital in June for bradycardia linked to her dietary restrictions.
I was able to see Emma thirteen times during her hospital stay. She was very discreet and not very expressive, both verbally and in terms of sound. She remained in constant control and didn’t allow herself anything that might give her pleasure. Over the course of the sessions, music enabled Emma to come into contact with repressed emotions such as aggression, anger and sadness. What she couldn’t express in words, Emma expressed in music. Her tiny voice grew in confidence, and the percussion instruments enabled her to approach a certain pleasure and let go, to bring movement where her illness had frozen her. The Voice ordering her to do sport to lose weight was represented by notes and colours, making it less terrifying.
A highlight of the follow-up took place at the 11th session. After a particularly emotional meeting with the care team and the parents, the latter came to the session so that Emma could play them a song she had composed. Each verse was about a member of her family. Dad, who was sometimes vindictive and distant with the team, gave up his defensive posture to give way to his tears. It was an intense moment.

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