Art therapy for patients with paraplegia: “Our desires need images”.

Day in and day out at the Swiss Paraplegic Center in Nottwil, patients with paraplegia are creating many small works of art. Few of these however will ever be seen in a museum. Nevertheless these paintings, drawings, sculptures and poems do have value – for their creators. For art therapy is a great aid to inner communication. Through creative activity people can get in touch with, express, and communicate their feelings, hopes and desires. Even things for which there are no words.

The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso said that “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” His German colleague Georg Baselitz thought that “Our desires need images.” Long before them, ancient scholars like Aristotle and Hippocrates knew the healing effects of creative activity. It has thus taken thousands of years of collected experience to come to the conclusion that activity in the field of art is one of our basic needs. Painting, music, literature, theater, film, sculpture are all very different platforms for expressing personal emotions. What they have in common are their simultaneously consciousness-raising and stimulating or calming effects.

Building block to integral rehabilitation

At the Swiss Paraplegic Center in Nottwil, art therapy has long formed a part of the integral rehabilitation of patients with paraplegia. Here they use a range of methods to help people with physical and emotional needs, to support their psychological stability. Colours, shapes, images, stories and role playing, but also techniques of the imagination are all used to help patients get in touch with their inner selves. Personal situations can be acted out within a safe environment. Pausing, without being interrupted by anyone or anything, can certainly release energies and give expression and form to changing feelings and thoughts – joy and suffering, anger, pain, loneliness, emptiness, richness, sadness, enjoyment, longing, hope, doubt and triump

Using change positively

The targeted application of individually tailored methods and techniques initiates a process of working through difficult experiences, with lasting results for the patient’s feeling of self-worth. For patients at the SPZ in Nottwil, this also means coming to terms with a changed body image, and finding the resources to cope with an altered scope for maneuver. The first, tentative steps in this direction are usually taken shortly before their arrival in the special clinic. In the Intensive care ward, the image of a familiar environment can arouse spontaneous, positive reactions and many patients with paraplegia or quadriplegia make regular use of art therapy during their rehabilitation stay at their own request.

Giving space, confidence, and encouragement

The multi-skilled and multiply trained art therapists don’t see themselves as teachers who instruct and correct. The teaching of purely manual skills is kept to a minimum. Much more important in sessions that only last an hour once or twice a week is to provide the patient’s carers, staff and resources with enough space and a suitable structure. Art therapy can encourage enthusiasm and playful behaviour; create space in which to let the creative imagination run free in the way you want, and act as a channel for releasing inner tensions. Experiences and creations are reflected upon and reappraised as part of the therapy discussion. One of the other special features of art therapy is “self-testing.” This is when patients learn to recognize and categorise their personal progress and development and to gain confidence in their own feelings and self-esteem.

Rita Sidler, art therapy coordinator Paranet
Source: Paraplegie journal, no. 104, Paramedia