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Work at Art Helps Kids Find Mental Health

November 13, 1985|PAUL OMUNDSON

SAN DIEGO — Angry and spiteful, 14-year-old Andy takes sculpturing clay to a corner by himself and hurls it to the ground, then pounds his fists into it. Over and over again, he picks the clay up to shape crude figures--only to obliterate them in outbursts of anger. After three such explosions, Andy finds himself slowly becoming absorbed in creating an ornate house out of the clay. Embellishing it with fine details, he proudly comes out of his corner and shares it with the other children.

"Without realizing it, Andy is using his clay to get in touch with deep, hostile feelings," said Ellen Speert, president of the San Diego Art Therapy Assn., who uses drawing, sculpture and painting as tools to guide troubled children in healing their emotional wounds.

Speert began using this form of therapy a decade ago in Boston city schools, and for seven years has conducted art therapy sessions for adolescents in Chula Vista's Southwood Psychiatric Center and other private clinics and schools.

In Andy's case, Speert chose clay as the medium because of the boy's extreme anger.

"He has a history of temper tantrums and fighting with other kids," she said. "In a situation like this, clay is ideal. It allows the child to pound and punch all he wants without hurting himself or anyone else. At the same time, clay has a soothing quality, tending to calm a child while releasing tension."

Sorting It Out

Andy is typical of the children she works with. He was placed in a residential treatment center by his father, who raised him alone after the mother left home five years ago. Amid signs of neglect and rejection, Andy clings to the hope that his father will someday come and take him home.

"But the dad never shows up for scheduled visits," Speert said. "He sends money instead."

Through art therapy, she is guiding Andy in unraveling reasons for his deep-rooted anger. In later sessions, the youngster admits that his elaborate house of clay is a deep, heartfelt cry for his father and for a real home.

"He still can't deal with the rejection by his mother, but at least he is coming to terms with all those feelings bottled up inside himself," she said.

Used on East Coast

Speert is one of about 30 art therapists in San Diego County who help rehabilitate youngsters labeled as misfits in school. Her clients often have police records and a history of drug abuse.

On the East Coast, art therapy has long been a standard component of school counseling departments, acute care hospitals and nursing homes. It's not nearly as widespread here, but is a growing specialty tapped mostly by agencies and clinics that deal with troubled youngsters.

Speert, formerly an elementary school teacher in San Diego, came upon art therapy by coincidence.

While teaching during her postgraduate studies in Boston, Speert noticed that problem students responded well to her art instruction.

"Pretty soon other teachers sent me their problem kids for art class," she said. That evolved into counseling fifth- and sixth-graders in the Boston City School District, where she used art to help bored advanced students, as well as troublemakers, solve their behavior problems.

Speert herself is an artist who weaves, quilts, paints and works with stained glass.

"You name it and I've probably dabbled in it," she said.

Better Than Words

Gene Schiller, a licensed clinical social worker with the Douglas Young Clinic, a mental health clinic in Mira Mesa, also uses art therapy with children.

Each week he guides troubled youngsters while using paper, crayons and other art materials to unlock and examine their hostile feelings. Through their art, he attempts to accurately gauge a child's emotional development, hand-eye coordination and ability to reason.

Like Speert, Schiller is an artist as well as a counselor, with a fine arts degree from San Diego State University.

"When I first began printmaking, I noticed a very special form of communication developing between myself and other artists who shared studio space as we talked, drew and created," he said. "It became obvious to me that here was a format that could really work in my counseling. Up to that point I was using strictly verbal therapy."

A big advantage, experts say, is that children respond much better to expression through art than through words. Until high school, youngsters prefer, and are usually better at, communicating with pictures and drawings.

"It also offers the ability to be a direct avenue for self-healing," Speert added. "In verbal therapy the counselor is guiding the words. Even if we don't want to do that, the way we ask questions and the way we listen really shapes what the person says. On the other hand, if we let the child draw and don't interfere with that process, they have all the power."

More Than Playtime

Initially there is reluctance, both with children and adults, to take part in art therapy because of performance anxiety.

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