Health Services, Staff profile,

Art therapy comes to LRH

While we may have become used to the idea of talking as a way of getting on top of mental health challenges, the idea of using art as a pathway to improved wellbeing may still be a new concept to many people.

For patients at Latrobe Regional Health’s (LRH) Agnes Unit, an inpatient mental health support service for mothers and their newborns, art has become an important part of their journey to wellness thanks to the placement of a student art therapist with the team.

Michellle Smith a proud Pallawah woman, trained as a nurse in the 1980s and after a career in nursing, art, and working in Aboriginal health and communities, she is now studying a Master Of Art Therapy through Latrobe University.

“Art therapy isn’t about being able to draw or even having a talent for creativity,” Michelle said.

“Rather, we’ll work to use art as a doorway to encourage someone to a different way of looking at their lives, or at least their current situation.”

Michelle’s placement involves working in the Flynn mental health unit as well as the Agnes Unit at LRH.

Michelle works in group settings in Agnes alongside the nursing and social work team and the patients who are largely new mothers experiencing mental health challenges after the birth of a child.

“A good way of describing how art therapy works is to describe an exercise we did the other day,” Michelle said.

“Working in a group, we gathered a bunch of magazines and asked the women to cut out pictures that they felt represented the idea of a ‘perfect mum’.

“After the women arranged and pasted the images we started talking about the pictures, the way motherhood is represented and some of the pressure new mums feel to be ‘this kind of mum’ or ‘that kind of mum’.

“The exercise proved to be useful and certainly allowed some of the women to talk about where they were at the time and how realistic or unrealistic they felt some of those representations of motherhood were.

“So, it’s not about the ‘art’ as such. It’s about using art or creativity to get a helpful conversation going. For others, sometimes ‘the making’ with art materials is the only conversation” Michelle said.

Nurse Unit Manager at the Agnes Unit, Emma Vivian has noted the impact of having Michelle work with the team.

“It’s been interesting seeing the mums respond to Michelle’s approach. I think most of us have taken on board a message that ‘we can’t draw’ or aren’t creative at some point in our lives. Michelle has worked against that self-talk and encouraged the women to experiment and explore. The results have been positive, allowing some of the mums to have a few ‘a-ha!’ moments and get to grips with a couple of issues they are dealing with.”

The Agnes Unit is an early intervention mental health unit that takes referrals from across Gippsland. The team works with mothers, fathers and babies to build better connections, healthier responses and patterns for new families.