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In The News

Painting can be just the right medicine
11th October 2005
By Chris Johnston
Publication: The Age
© The Age. Reproduced by Permission

KAREN Hall has bipolar disorder — the condition formerly known as manic depression — and no one was more surprised than her when she enrolled in an art therapy course and started painting flowers.

She's interested in computers and architecture, not flowers. She's not a flower person at all. But that's what she painted.

"It's not the sort of thing I expected to paint," she said. "Never in a million years."

Ms Hall, 28, of Coburg, enjoyed the experience so much, and gained from it in ways that traditional therapy hadn't reached, that she bought paints and brushes to use at home.

For fellow course member Christine Myhre the stakes are higher. She said the art therapy course had saved her life. "I have been suicidal," she said, "but this course keeps me going."

Ms Myhre, 55, of Geelong, suffers from acute depression, but she finds it is softened and sometimes even cured by turning up once a week to Prahran's Victoria Clinic, where the course is held.

Organisers believe the Creative Solutions day program is the only hospital-based art therapy course of its kind in Australia.

Those involved produce art — paintings, drawings, poems, sculptures, masks — but these aren't analysed for meaning. Rather, the therapy comes from joining in and doing it.

"We give their creativity a totally free rein," said course facilitator Carol Hamilton. "They can dress up crazy, wear purple, wear odd shoes, role -play, whatever. It's about coming to a safe place. I think of this as an art class with mental illness factored in."

Around a dozen people have enrolled, all women (although this is coincidental), aged from their 20s to 60s. They have bipolar disorder, various kinds of depression, schizophrenia and anxiety illnesses.

All have been patients of Victoria Clinic, a private psychiatric hospital. And all have found they have less need for the hospital now that they are visiting it informally to make art.

"Most have said if they didn't have this they don't know what they would do," said Mrs Hamilton, a former psychiatric nurse who is completing a masters degree in creative art therapy. "They'd do what we call the 'Doona-dive' — they'd stay in bed all day, brooding on the negatives. These people are on a tightrope between being dead and being alive and the way we see it, creativity is the opposite of depressive illnesses.

"Creativity," she said, "is about being open, while depression closes you down."

Ms Myhre said she often found it hard to get from Geelong once a week for the course. But she felt she had to. "It's much harder to get better than it is to get sick," she said. "This can hopefully help mend me."

Ms Hall, meanwhile, said finding the course — in a society which harshly judged mentally ill people — was like a "sanctuary."

"You can be yourself here," she said. "You can remove yourself from your problems. It's safe. And it's fun."

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