Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 January 2011
Issue No. 1030
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

State of the art

Art therapy is being used to treat a variety of psychological problems in Egypt, as Andalib Fahmy discovers

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According to the American Art Therapy Association, visual expression has been used for healing throughout history

Some one hundred years ago, the painter Pablo Picasso said that art washes the soul of the dust of everyday life, though he presumably didn't know then that one day art would be used to diagnose and treat psychological problems.

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), visual expression has been used for healing throughout history, but art therapy did not emerge as a profession until the 1940s.

In the early 20th century, psychologists became interested in artworks created by their patients. At around the same time, educators were discovering that children's art reflected developmental, emotional and cognitive growth. By the mid-century, hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centres across the US had begun to include art therapy programmes in their treatments, along with more traditional therapies.

"The creative process of art-making enhances recovery, health and wellness. As a result, the profession of art therapy grew into an effective and important method of communication, assessment and treatment with children and adults in a variety of settings in the United States," the association's website says.

Art therapy later began to spread across the world, beginning to flourish in Egypt. "I believe in art therapy, and I would like to see this kind of therapy grow in Egypt through schools that can train psychologists in this domain. Unfortunately, such schools do not currently exist in the country," comments Mona El-Rakhawi, a professor of psychiatry.

"Art can be used to diagnose and treat many disorders, and it can be used to improve emotional and mental health. Through the use of art, we are able not only to label the illness, but also to discover the root of the problem by exploring the inner self of the patient. Later, art can be used along with other treatments to give therapy for the problem," she says.

"Art therapy includes a wide range of activities, including drawing, painting, collage, dance movement therapy, music therapy and drama therapy. All these can be used to diagnose problems, except music therapy, which is used only in treatment.''

"Drawing and collage are particularly helpful in the treatment of verbal and personality disorders, and they can also be used to treat autistic children and even people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In cases of this sort, paper and pen become a sort of 'third party' through which a patient can project his ideas and rebuild what he may have missed. He can better express himself and communicate better with others and with himself," she says.

"Dance therapy can help in relaxation and increase communication with others and with the patient's own body. However, it can be difficult to use dance therapy with patients who are shy or have an increased sense of their own restrictions. Dance therapy can be very effective in tackling problems related to the body and self communication because through movements we are able to understand a person's particular rhythm, and once we understand that we can help him make changes," El-Rakhawi adds.

"Drama therapy is an indirect, intellectual and interactive way of diagnosing and treating patients. Through drama games, for example, the therapist can tackle a specific problem, leaving the patient free to explore his own difficulties, 'playing' with them in order to treat them. Psychodrama helps a patient revive his experiences and go back to areas of childhood that he may never have been able to access before. As a result, he is able to explore himself and discuss his difficulties openly."

"One of the most effective drama games is role reversal, in which the patient takes the role of another person in his life and communicates with him or her. Such forms of communication help the patient to face his problems with others and to understand their points of view."

Due to her strong faith in art therapy, El-Rakhawi has opened her own specialised treatment centre, the Diwan Psychotherapy Centre.

The Diwan Centre is an extension of the concept of the therapeutic day centre, pioneered in Egypt by Yehia El-Rakhawi. "With the inspiration and encouragement of Yehia El-Rakhawi, the Diwan Centre is now the first specialised day centre in Egypt that gives participants the ability to benefit from different forms of treatment under the supervision of a trained medical team,'' El-Rakhawi says.

"Diwan offers therapeutic activities for people who suffer from a wide range of difficulties in their lives, using all kinds of art. It aims to support people having transient or long- standing psychological difficulties through creating a small integrative therapeutic milieu. This milieu gives the person the chance to acquire skills in expressing his or her personal issues in direct or indirect ways, giving them a better chance of challenging and overcoming difficulties that they have not been able to resolve on an individual support basis."

"We called it the Diwan Centre, because we wanted it to be a place where people could gather and discuss their problems and a place where we could spread the idea of art therapy."

"Although art therapy has great beneficial effects, demand is still not as high as it could be since Egyptian people often hesitate to ask for psychological help. As a result, I direct patients to the specific forms of therapy the centre offers. Art therapy is still rare in Egypt because we do not have the necessary training schools, though it is very much to be hoped that these will come."

Essam Francis, head of the community based rehabilitation department at Caritas, a non- governmental organisation, agreed with El-Rakhawi about the benefits of art therapy.

"We do not have any training school for this form of therapy in Egypt, despite its proven success," Francis said. "As a result, there are few practitioners of this sort of therapy, and as there are few practitioners unfortunately the price of the therapy can be very high."

"We have used art therapy at Caritas to treat children with special needs and their parents, and the therapy has proven its effectiveness. Our first experience with art therapy was when a French practitioner came to Egypt to help treat children with motor skill problems, and by using art therapy and dance therapy she was able to help these children develop their skills in a remarkable way."

"The second experience was when an Egyptian practitioner came to work with parents who could not deal with a problem child. Art therapy helped them to release their psychological pressures, and again it was very effective," Francis said.

"I would like to see this kind of therapy developed in Egypt because it can be very effective. I would also like to see our faculties of medicine and applied art work together to develop such therapy, also involving faculties of physical education."

Rana Asaad, a physiologist, said that art therapy was uncommon in Egypt despite its effectiveness because Egyptians like to play things safe and opt for traditional ways of dealing with problems rather than innovations.

"They think they know the advantages and disadvantages of traditional therapies, and they tend to distrust newer ones, even if these could be healthier, cheaper, or more effective. Many Egyptian doctors still prefer to prescribe drugs for psychological problems, rather than try other treatments," she said.

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