Art therapy: Promoting mental health through artistic expression

Nancy Njeri

Nancy Njeri explains how she makes flowerpots from old towels and concrete at Howam School of Arts in Nyeri town on October 27, 2021. She is one of the beneficiaries of the institution.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Intense emotions characterised by tears and sometimes heavy silence in between the meetings usually punctuate the counselling and therapy sessions. If the walls could talk, they would tell of rooms that harbour more secrets, (and closure), than any other.

But the baring of hearts is not the only thing that happens here. On this visit, we cannot help but admire the creative, artistic paintings and mosaic pendants hanging on one side of a wall. The artworks explains Diana Muriuki, a therapist in training, created by patients during therapy sessions. The unique sessions involve patients either painting, playing musical instruments or making décor items.

The 24-year-old Kenyatta University student runs a school of art and music in Nyeri town for patients with various mental health issues. People start practising art for different reasons, she explains, the lack of a medium for mental health patients to heal.

“Art as a form of therapy helps complement traditional mental health treatment. Through creating art, one gets a healthy outlet for expressing and letting go of all fears,” she explains, adding that the process gives one a feeling of self-accomplishment, which is valuable in improving one’s self-appreciation and confidence.

As an expressive medium, art can be used to help patients communicate, overcome stress, and explore different aspects of their own personalities. In psychology, the use of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health is known as art therapy. This is the option that Diana chose to study, and later on, use her skills to help others.

Currently, a fourth-year Gender and Development student at Kenyatta University majoring in therapy, Diana ventured into art in 2019 as a way of alleviating mental health problems. At the time, she was on industrial attachment at People’s Achievement Consultancy (PAC), a counselling firm in Nairobi, when she was assigned a group of youths and tasked with performing an open group therapy session for them.

The group, she recalls, consisted of 22 youths between seven to 17 years in primary and high schools, and an adult aged 31 years.

“Many of the group members were on anti-anxiety medication and were looking for a non-judgmental place to heal,” she explains.

While researching on how she could help them, she discovered that art could work as a rehabilitation tool for them. Diana explains art as an expressive, non-threatening way to express inner feelings that can be difficult to put into words. The artwork produced by her patients, as she would learn, helped her gain a better understanding of how to support them.

With this knowledge, she sought assistance from her father, Ephraim Muriuki, who runs a restaurant in Nyeri town. He was impressed with what she had in mind and allowed her and her patients to use the facility to showcase performing arts such as drama, music and dance, that they had engaged in during the counselling period. Her father even offered to facilitate accommodation, food and transport for the group for a month.

“It was in July 2019 when we did our first show for free at the restaurant, a skit called Match Made in Hell, which attracted a huge turnout.”

Other than her father who knew the group was seeking treatment for various mental health issues, the audience assumed that the actors were thespians doing what they did best. After the show, Diana received several requests from residents wanting to know how one could join the drama group. Most of them were parents who wished to enrol their children.

Having pulled a successful show, it was easier for Diana to convince her father to finance her to found a school of arts that doubled as a home for patients with mental issues within Nyeri. This was how Diana founded the Home of Wealth, Art and Media (HOWAM) with financial help from her father.

“He provided a capital of Sh7 million, which we used to rent a business premise, buying all the necessary art tools, including musical equipment and hiring staff,” she explains.

As a counsellor, Diana points out that her duty is to help people manage and eventually overcome the mental problems preventing them from living a full life. She listens to her patients and then offers them advise on what to do to control the situation or offer a solution. Ironically, Diana has never stepped into an art class, neither can she play a musical instrument, it is research and experience that has taught her that art can help cure most mental issues.

Most of the patients here are either undergoing emotional difficulties or have underlying mental health conditions. Others are suffering from either grief, addiction, depression, anger or various difficulties within the family.

“The root causes of their problems are related to their childhood, how they grew up, or where they come from, how they view the world and how they cope with the process of transitioning from home to the world,” she explains.

Her organisation currently works with four therapists, who carry out the counselling. The school has also partnered with PAC, which provides up to five therapists to the school on a need basis. Diana is not a licensed therapist since she is yet to complete her studies, but oversees the day-to-day running of her school, with the help of her father.

The institution has art and music courses tailor-made for children and adults. It offers classes on vocals training, dance, foreign languages, fine and visual arts, photography, fashion and graphic design and modelling.Unlike most similar institutions, all students are provided with therapy and counseling sessions besides the art they are taught. This therapy costs Sh500 per day.

“This amount is affordable to many of the locals – I hope to dispel the notion that therapy is expensive and therefore only meant for the rich,” she explains.

Diana describes the kind of counselling offered to children as unique. It is involves a gradual process of integration. The first therapy session entails a discussion with the minors, and during the second session, they are slowly introduced to various kinds of art.

“Patients interact with different forms of art like painting or playing a musical instrument and ultimately, they find something they are good at,” she says.

Once each of the children are engaged in a form of art that they like, she explains, the process helps them rediscover themselves.

But what happens if one is unable to master an art?

With the help of other teachers at the school, who have specialised in various arts, they are able to assess and determine the best type of art one should engage with.

To reach more people with mental health issues, Diana goes out of her way to attend public mental health medical camps held by different organisations.

“Many of the locals who attend such forums are people struggling with various mental conditions and who are seeking free consultation services,” she says.

Besides this, she uses social media to make her organisation known to the youth since her aim is to touch as many lives as she can. Her greatest achievement is the school’s music band, made up of the students. The band is doing so well, it is currently travelling across counties for performances.

As director of the school, the management role has significantly shaped her outlook of life and made her more confident. During the interview, she comes across as confident, assertive and dependable, even though, she notes, this was not always the case while growing up.

“If asked, my high school friends would describe me as shy and short-tempered,” she says.

But because of the course she is studying at university, and the trajectory her life has taken, her personality has changed for the better.

“During lectures, I have always felt like a patient in class because my course teaches me how to behave, how to become a problem solver and to view life in a positive way,” she says, adding that the courses have also taught her how to manage and supervise her employees, some older than her.

Due to the huge commitment that running a school requires, she once deferred her studies for a semester to ensure that the institution was on a firm footing.

Drawing from her experience, she explains that most of the people dealing with mental problems are people in formal jobs and the youth.

“Such groups of people are facing so much societal pressure and expectations to excel,” she says.

Twenty-nine-year-old Ms Nancy Njeri, a beneficiary of the school, recalls how music helped her deal with depression. Njeri first met Diana in 2019, and the two would go on to become close friends as time went by. Njeri is a member of the school’s band, a role that she cherishes.

“I found solace in the group because most of the band members during that time were unemployed just like me, being in the band occupied our time and we kept one another company. Being here saved me from a mental breakdown when I lost my job,” she says.

Njeri is a plumber, but now works at Howam School as a sign language teacher having studied sign language. She, like some of the teachers at the institution, understands the struggle that those battling such an illness experience since they have been there before.

The institution’s peak season is during the school holidays when primary and high school students are at home, bringing about the need to hire more  teachers and counsellors.

“During holidays, we get about 200 minors whom we engage in short art courses and free counseling sessions.”

Definitely an institution to watch.