Art Therapy: A Critical Youth Media Approach

Not all personal stories are made for the screen. From a therapeutic stance, some stories that youth producers craft are not always ready for an audience. After all, once you put it on a screen, you can’t take it back.
For example, over two years I worked with a student who I will call Melanie. Melanie wanted to make a documentary about her experiences with cutting and self-mutilation. She believed that cutting was a healthy activity that turned her away from the path of drugs and alcohol to better cope with her difficulties. For Melanie, each of the many scars covering her well-hidden arms and legs were signs of her survival.
While I understood her point of view, it was clear that she was not far away enough from her subject to tackle it objectively. In my opinion, she was not ready to make that film, it was too soon. “That’s okay,” I told her, “because there are plenty of other stories in your life that need telling. You’ll tell this one some other time, it’s just not the right time yet.”
As her instructor and mentor, I have the responsibility to make sure that the story that she wants to tell is both appropriate for telling, and that her exploration of the topic can be done in a safe, healthy manner that isn’t exploitative or puts her in harms way. My worry is that by putting a camera in the middle of her trauma, it could shift Melanie’s emphasis away from growth and healing, into something that seems to almost celebrate her situation. The answer to Melanie isn’t ‘no you can’t’ but rather, ‘you can, just not yet.’
A few years later, Melanie decided to re-approach the subject. Her life was in a better place, her choices healthier, and her perspective on the topic had changed. She wanted to create a strong piece that could help other teens trapped in similar circumstances.
As youth media educators encourage personal story telling and sharing through audience-bound media projects, we need to think critically about what is appropriate for sharing, the emotional needs of the youth we work with, and our responsibility in monitoring youth produced content. Art therapy and clinical resources are great tools to bettwe support educators when dealing with the personal stories young people prepare to display on the big screen.
About RAW and R2R
Raw Art Works (RAW), located in Lynn, Massachusetts, is a nationally recognized, community-based youth arts organization with a mission “to ignite the desire to create and the confidence to succeed in underserved youth.” The Reel to Real Filmschool (R2R), founded in 2000, is recognized as a leading youth filmmaking program, both nationally and throughout New England.
We believe the most important stories to tell are one’s own, and the difference between art and craft is a personal connection and ownership of the artistic process. It is understood at RAW that communicating through art is inherently therapeutic.
Currently, RAW serves more than 400 young people each year in its studio-based programs, which have included printmaking, painting, and filmmaking since its inception in 1994. These programs are supplemented by more than 2,500 additional contacts with young people through outreach activities.
Whether it’s on-site work in the public school system, court mandated work with teens right out of lock-up, individual therapy, or simply hitting the streets with our “Van Go!” summer program, we meet youth where they are in the community. The biggest issues facing RAW and the youth it serves tend to be community-based issues such as poverty, violence, substance abuse, and gangs. These issues are a major driving force in the development of RAW’s teens.
As an organization with deep roots in the field of art therapy, RAW and R2R believe strongly in the transformative power of the artistic process. We ask our artists, regardless of medium, to peel back the layers of their experiences and transform their stories into art, in this case, specifically, into films.
While R2R is rooted in art therapy and receives support from a team of professional therapists, it is the only program at RAW not actively run by a clinically trained therapist, but instead, led by filmmakers. While the field of expressive therapies has been around for some time, the use of filmmaking in conjunction with art therapy is a relatively new development.
Youth Media and Art Therapy
Youth media typically fares well in supporting young people to reflect on their lives, developing strong relationships with adult allies in the process. Typically, youth media programs provide a safe culture and environment for collaboration, openness, and trust to investigate one’s story.
Many educators have experienced that the process of personal story sharing can expose a lot of trauma and conflict beneath the surface of youth creators. Oftentimes, these educators are not equipped with art therapy resources and tools, which would build the strength and confidence of the young people served.
Some youth media organizations, like the Latin American Youth Center Art + Media House in Washington, D.C. has a social worker on staff, which they find highly effective in their programs (see: YMR, March 2009). In addition, parents recognize youth media as a process that has been refered to as “safe passage” for healing traumatic experiences in the lives of their children (see: YMR, June 2009).
Youth media has the right factors that encourage young people to tell and share their personal lives, but we don’t always have the means to analyze, support, and identify the level of trauma or disclosure of young people. For example, see (YMR, July 2007 and April 2008).
If we go back to Melanie’s case, let’s think about how her story about cutting, which was not entirely common information, is treated as a public media piece. Imagine the hypothetical scenario where the aesthetics of the film are discussed alongside the content: “When you show your scars, or when you show how you would take apart a disposable razor blade to cut yourself with, is it better to show that in a wide shot, or a close up? What’s the sound design that we’re hearing while this part of your story unfolds?” Such questions might have overwhelmed Melanie who was in the midst of processing trauma.
The healing process is an important part of young people’s experiences and youth media must identify ways to support this process alongside media production. Underneath all personal issues that come up in youth media, as educators, we need to help young people explore what is really going on so that they can live full, expressive lives.
Thankfully, a qualified clinical team to deal with issues like Melanie’s, as well as sexual abuse, neglect, and substance abuse supports the R2R staff. But not all youth media organizations are set up to afford clinical staff. However, the practice of art therapy has many important tools that the youth media field can add to its knapsack.
Suggestions to the Field
Make it personal. Tackling issues alone is not enough. Make films that only your teens can make. As we say to our students “if someone else can make your film, let them do it. Make the film that only you can make.” In a time of limitless access to media for our teens, it is more important than ever to put a face and an identity on the issues that our teens choose to tackle. The end result? Teens see that their own stories and voices are legitimate, and their films will result in greater artistry and honesty.
Build a culture of openness. To get students to reflect on their lives, they need to have strong relationships with staff and their peers, a safe culture for collaboration and openness, and a trustful environment that allows students the comfort to investigate who they are and the role they play in the world. For the students and the RAW staff, it is all about the quality of their relationships with each other. As a result, RAW staff members spend a lot of time talking, writing, and exploring their lives and art together. They work hard to lay a strong foundation that allows trust to grow, both from teacher to student as well as student to student.
Be prepared. Asking for personal stories will put educators right in the face of the realities of our teens. Like an onion, once you start peeling back the layers, there’s no way to put them back. Be prepared to face the often-harsh realities of our youth. Be honest and transparent in your reactions to their stories. They will know if you’re being real or not with them. If you don’t always know what to do, say the truth. Know when to say that you don’t have an answer. They’ll respect you for being honest.
Build relationships. Connecting and building relationships takes time and isn’t always easy, but is well worth it. Building relationships with school counselors, social workers, therapists and parents will make it easier for you to seek out advice and assistance as you learn more about the realities of your teens. Relationships with parents will help give you a more complete picture of the students’ home-life—just don’t be too willing to put a parents point of view above students.
Protect yourself and know the law. When talking to youth about their lives, as an educator you must explain what you are required to do if abuse is suspect so that you do not violate students’ trust. However, as a caretaker in the state of Massachusetts, if I suspect any occurrence of abuse or neglect, by law, I am to report it. Whenever possible, if you are talking with a teen about heavy issues, have someone else whom you trust in the room with you to sever as a witness and support. Make sure that the student is aware that you receive support from your staff, and that ultimately; you’ll make smarter decisions if you have team support.
Next Steps
The youth media field is prone to showcasing youth produced media with deep social impact. Incorporating a more personal direction, one that actively puts teens personal viewpoints and experiences on the screen will give youth media work a deeper emotional impact overall. Our youth have incredible stories to share, but, as a field, we need to understand how best to incorporate therapeutic approaches that keep youth safe and emotionally secure throughout the process.
While therapy belongs in the realm of therapists, using art as a tool of self-expression is a timeless concept. The field of art therapy has demonstrated that it is important for us to understand how to responsibly aid teens through their path of exploration as they create their art. Social workers, therapists, and counselors are all important and necessary components in this process, both for the aide of the student and for the protection of the instructor. When issues of neglect or abuse are at play, no single person should be asked to hold the entire weight of that person’s experience.
Christopher Gaines is a father, husband and filmmaker. He is also the director of the Real to Reel Filmschool at Raw Art Works, in Lynn, Massacusetts, just north of Boston. He was first introduced to filmmaking as a teen, and is just as much in love with the medium now as he was then. Prior to RAW, Chris worked professionally as an editor and cinematographer.
Paulina Villarroel began her career as a filmmaker at the age of 15 at Cambridge Community Television in Cambridge, MA. Shortly after graduating from The Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at NYU, she worked as the video production manager for Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational non-profit committed to teaching civic responsibility, tolerance, and social action to young people, as a way of fostering moral adulthood. In June of 2009, Paulina received her Ed. M from the Arts in Education Masters Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Recently, she joined the staff of Raw Arts as the instructor for Real to Reel Filmschool.