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Art Therapy in Residential Behavioral Health System: Children and Adolescents

Over six years ago I began my “career” as a high school art instructor, teaching art classes to newcomer freshmen and advanced adolescent upper classmen. Little did I know that my career would only begin to blossom into a narrative much different than it began. I had no idea that my path in becoming an Art Therapist would begin here, but looking back now... it certainly did. My passion for the arts is cultivated by my enjoyment in watching how art making can improve lives daily. How many people get to say that about what they do for a living?
I currently work in Eastern Virginia at a residential behavioral health center for children and adolescents who have emotional and behavioral needs. Our children and their families have traditionally been unsuccessful in maintaining balance within less restrictive environments, traditional schools, or outpatient therapies. Our residents live on the center’s campus twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. My responsibilities as a Clinical Therapist include conducting individual and family therapy, running several groups weekly, case management, and loads and loads of paperwork. I have the privilege of working within the children’s program and the adolescent girl’s program, within group, individual, and family sessions. I integrate art therapy into my individual and family work, and truly love to see art therapy thrive in the group setting.
To give more insight to our group process, it might be best to explain how they are arranged. Groups are typically structured focusing on various specialties that all residents are required to have. Anger management, process, and specialty groups are types of clinical groups they receive weekly. Specialty groups are chosen for each child, depending on their specific needs. I currently run a process group, healthy relationships group, and self-esteem group. Luckily for my kids, I am an art therapist. So no surprise, I run my groups as an art therapist. Although I have wonderful art therapy stories with my families and individuals, the group process is truly inspiring to witness. I get to see impulses slow down, problems solved, emotions released and contained in healthy ways, relationships heal, and creativity flow endlessly. Not bad for a Thursday.
Each therapist at our center is responsible for running clinical groups and each therapist varies in his or her approach to therapy. We all demonstrate unique distinctions in personality, training, and background. It can be difficult to navigate your “art therapist identity”, which we so often talk about in graduate school, among many others who have diverse training backgrounds with ultimately the same job title as you. I find that I maintain my identity by focusing on what ‘my identity’ looks like for myself within the setting where I work. I will often compare myself to other colleagues who have the official “art therapist” title and catch myself being jealous at times. Remembering that I am an art therapist, no matter what my title states reminds me that I can be confident in that alone. I have no doubt that my identity will change over time, but remaining comfortable and confident in the moment, or as Yalom would say, “in the here and now”, has proven to be one of the most important attributes of maintaining an identity that I am proud of.
One final thing. Having some experience in residential care from my graduate school experience, I was convinced that I would never be able to thrive (or even survive) in this type of environment. “The clientele would be too difficult”, I would attempt to convince myself with my limited experience. “I wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace, environment, or workload” was another excuse I assured myself. With one year under my belt at my current facility, I realize that I underestimated the sense of fulfillment that comes with this career. For those considering residential care as a career option: do not be afraid of it! It is certainly hard, but worth it.
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