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Healing power of art
Unique therapeutic program helps children with expression

Danielle Sachs
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012

"There was blood all over the floor, then I threw up."

NNSL photo/graphic

Patricia MacAulay is the art therapist at the elementary school in Inuvik. She has worked with children over the past three years and helps them process their feelings. - Danielle Sachs/NNSL photo

The quote is an anonymous caption underneath a violent smear of red paint swirled around on paper.

It's part of a slideshow Patricia MacAulay, art therapist, put together after her first year working full time with students at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School.

The names have been removed from many of the art pieces to protect the confidentiality of the children, but it doesn't make them any less moving.

MacAulay provides a different type of therapy. Instead of the stereotypical couch you see in movies, the walls in her new room are lined with bins of art supplies, puppets and figurines.

The blinds are closed leading to the hallway, again to protect confidentiality.

There's a small tent in the corner of the room. MacAulay calls it a cozy place children can go. Or, some students use it to show her what it's like when they're out on the land.

There's a sand table currently hosting tiny army figures, the remnants of a session from earlier in the afternoon.

"Everyone works differently," said MacAulay, who works with elementary students in the community.

"It's very open-ended. I invite a child in and I explain what counselling is and when the door is shut this is a safe place."

According to MacAulay the three main issues the she sees children dealing with are violence in the home, substance abuse and relationship breakdowns.

"If you're seven and already have all that it's hard to work out what you're feeling.

MacAulay works as collaboratively as possible with parents or guardians.

"I follow up on every contact. It's time consuming but worthwhile for the continuity," she said.

For the past three years since the program started, MacAulay has worked with about 70 different children a year. They're between kindergarten and Grade 6. The children are referred to her either by parents, teachers or health-care practitioners.

"So far, the demand outweighs the supply," said MacAulay.

"There could be two of us working full time and we'd probably still be full."

But for now, MacAulay is just happy there's at least one full-time position.

"From the beginning, the principal (Janette Vlanich) has been so supportive," said MacAulay.

"She's been an advocate for the program and she's very resourceful finding supplies."

Through art and play, children are given an opportunity to express their feelings in ways they may not yet have the verbal language for, said MacAulay.

After explaining what counselling is and that the studio is a safe place, children can explore the bins around the room.

"I'll ask a child, 'What's attracting you right now?' They'll usually feel excited about choosing but sometimes, rarely, they're so shut down they just can't," she said.

"Once they make a decision, they move away from day-to-day thinking, they're completely focused on what they're doing and getting in touch with their feelings."

MacAulay said the feeling is hard to articulate, but when a child starts processing, you can actually feel it in the room.

"The difference in here is no one is judging them, it's a safe place," said MacAulay.

The school board has played a big role in supporting mental health in the schools, said MacAulay.

"Administration has been 100-per-cent supportive of the program. It's recognition that emotional needs are important."

It helps other adults working in the school as well.

"It makes a lot of people feel better that they can do something and get help for the kid," said MacAulay.

"It's hard to be faced with high-level needs if you always have that desire to do more. It's a recipe for burnout."

MacAulay was a high school English teacher before leaving to travel and experience the world. When she was close to turning 40, she stumbled into painting and felt the power of it.

"It was like waking up. There was powerful healing to it," said MacAulay.

After researching the art therapy field, MacAulay enrolled in an 18-month program in Vancouver and worked with homeless teens, women from the sex trade and in elementary schools.

It was the elementary-aged individuals who spoke to her the most.

"It was their honest, heartfelt expression," said MacAulay.

"In a therapy experience, that's what will allow them to move forward."

MacAulay said she's lucky to have found a full-time, school-based position in Inuvik and said there is a lot of strength in the community.

"In just the past four years, there has been so much more awareness around mental health," said MacAulay.

"The key thing is to build a positive relationship and to show them there's hope for the future. It lets kids know the world can be a loving place."

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