How creative arts therapies support the mental health of Michigan children

Michaela Rabin was just 2 years old when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly, her world became a frightening place, full of painful medical procedures and strange faces obscured by surgical masks. Over the course of a year, Michaela spent 100 days in the hospital receiving treatments for her illness. 

In the hospital setting, Michaela's body was healing, but she was also becoming anxious and fearful.

"Suddenly, everything scared her," says Michaela's mother, Amy Rabin. "She became apprehensive of everything, and cried when people just walked through the door."

Among the many therapies that Michaela received, the most soothing for her mental health came from music therapist Blythe Filar. 

By playing music tailored to Michaela's individual needs, Filar helped Michaela reduce her stress level and better tolerate her environment. "Eventually, Blythe could walk into the room and Michaela was not afraid of her," Rabin says. "Music therapy was a lifesaver, a truly wonderful thing. It returned something that was taken away from Michaela." 

Today, Michaela is a thriving 6-year-old kindergartener.

To the unfamiliar, music and other creative therapies, such as art and dance movement therapy, appear to be gratuitous distractions, or simply child's play. Yet creative therapies are valid treatments, proven to support the psychological needs of children and teens. For those suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions, creative therapies bring calm to the stressed-out mind.

"These fields are supported by evidence-based scientific literature on how the arts therapies help in cognition, affect, emotion, even changes in the brain," says therapist Dr. Jody Conradi Stark, lecturer and clinical supervisor at Eastern Michigan University. "They provide a decrease in stress hormones, such as cortisol, and have other direct impacts in the brain."

At DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, music and art therapy exist under the umbrella of Child Life Services, a group of specialists who are trained in child development, and can provide age-appropriate support to child and adolescent patients. Collectively, the department supported more than 13,000 patients in 2017 with art, music, and yoga therapy. 

Music therapy has psychiatric roots

For the children and their families, the programs are invaluable. Music therapy in particular decreases the perception of pain in those with chronic illnesses. In neonatal intensive care units, music therapy helps sick or premature infants remain calmer in highly stimulating environments.

Music therapy looks simple enough, and its feel-good benefits appear to be obvious. After all, who doesn't get a boost from a favorite song? In fact, music therapy's roots are in WWII-era mental health hospitals, and its treatment outcomes have been documented in clinical research.

"The psychiatric setting has traditionally been one of the first settings for music therapy, and art therapy has long been known as a psychotherapeutic technique," says Stark. "Music therapy brings the child to what is happening in the moment, in the here and now, which helps organize thinking and focus."

A music therapy session

Local Syrian refugee children benefited from music therapy during sessions facilitated by therapists and music therapy students from Eastern Michigan University. Daylong events, held by the Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN) at the Balkan American Community Center in Troy and the Trust One-Pelham Community Center in Dearborn, brought services such as dental care and legal advice, plus yoga, music therapy, art therapy, and other activities to local refugee families. 

College students, with the help of a translator, and guided by music therapists Stark and Filar, created drum circles and call-and-response echo rhythms, before asking children to share music from the Syrian culture. In same-gender groups, the Syrian women taught the female students dances using traditional music stored on their phones.

The experience strengthened the resilience of the refugee children, who learned they could communicate across language barriers, says Stark. 

"To be in the moment, sharing, and having a relationship in the music, where you can't communicate verbally, it's a way to feel normal again," Stark says. "This was a way for them to feel accepted by the community and be a part of the community."

Art therapy gives visual voice to emotions

For a kid whose daily routine and sense of autonomy are disrupted by hospitalization, art therapy can provide an outlet to process big emotions. Approached as a process, rather than as an end result, drawing and painting can release energy and become a means of self-expression that doesn't require verbalization.  

When working with a patient, art therapist Victoria Goldsmith initially tries to establish rapport, then models a few sketches to show that the outcome is not really what's important.

"One of my favorite interventions is a scribble drawing," she says. "We use pen or pencil and paper, and the patient can select a time frame. A 20-second scribble helps get out that pent-up physical energy. After that, I present a challenge—what can we find in the scribbles?" 

Goldsmith during an art therapy session

Coloring in the images helps establish focus, and slows down and regulates breathing so the child can relax naturally.

Self-expression through art is particularly helpful for kids whose parents minimize the severity of their illness. "Art is an amazing vehicle because it provides an opportunity for kids to transparently communicate what they are feeling, thinking, or worried about," Goldsmith says. 

Where creative therapies really thrive is when they are a part of an interdisciplinary treatment plan. The individual therapist will assess cognitive, academic, communication, and social-emotional skills to determine the best path forward, then focus on music or art to achieve non-arts goals, such as increased attention span or social interaction. 

"If a child is actively psychotic or having symptoms that are impacting their sense of reality orientation, we would be more concrete in our approach," Stark says. "We might sing songs and talk about the lyrics of the song, rather than encourage imagery and imagination. But, in conjunction with appropriate medications, we would eventually be able to use other techniques as they become more stable."

Kids who will not talk during group therapy may talk about the lyrics of a song and share experiences during music therapy.

"Music relates to almost every aspect of life, and it's evocative in how it expresses emotion," Stark says. "That's why music is so attractive when we are adolescents. We can relate to it."

This article is part of "Children of Michigan," a series on the importance of health and wellbeing for Michigan's children. It is made possible with funding from the Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation.

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.