To help students deal with stress and anxiety that affect their behavior in school, guidance counselor Kelvin Ramirez takes them on a journey that starts with making art.
One week after classes started in the New York City schools in 2001, the unthinkable happened. Terrorists flew two jets into the World Trade Center towers and the city was thrown into chaos. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, teacher Kelvin Ramirez watched his 6th grade students struggling to grasp what had happened to their city and attempting to deal with their fears and anxieties. He knew they needed his help.
As a graduate student in art therapy, Ramirez realized he could apply what he was learning directly to the situation at his school: “I saw a way to connect with the kids through art, to have them make their own art and express their feelings in a way they couldn’t in words.” The creative process of making a drawing or sculpting a piece of clay relieved some of the anxiety his students felt, and gave them a safe outlet for addressing their fears.
Art therapy - along with other expressive therapies such as drama, music, dance, and expressive arts therapy - is gaining ground as an important tool for counselors and mental health practitioners. These therapies help them improve the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of those in their care. Since emerging as a discipline in the 1940s, art therapy has grown into an effective treatment method practiced in schools, hospitals, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, clinics, crisis centers, and senior communities. Top medical centers such as Massachusetts General, Johns Hopkins, and the Mayo Clinic include art therapy among their patient services.
"When I hear people say, ‘There’s so much poverty and misery in the world, I don’t know where to start.’ I tell them, ‘Start where you’re standing. Look around and see what’s missing. Focus your energy on the world you can affect, the world you have direct contact with.’”
Where traditional psychotherapy relies on talking about emotions, art therapy provides a vehicle for creative expression that moves beyond words. For children, especially, who may be too embarrassed to talk to an adult about their problems, or who worry about what their peers will think, “art therapy bypasses their censors,” as Ramirez puts it.
He’s now a teacher and guidance counselor at All Hallows High School, a Catholic boys’ school in the Bronx, where he works with students—many of them high achievers from low-income families—to address behavioral and academic problems. Their demeanor in school says a lot about the stresses they’re dealing with outside of school, Ramirez says. In addition to the typical adolescent struggles with parents, some of his students also face violence and drugs in their neighborhoods.
He describes one art therapy exercise that his students participated in recently. The assignment was to draw the scariest monster they could imagine. Afterward, they each talked about their drawings. “The monster isn’t them, but we talk about the qualities of the monster that relate to them,” Ramirez says. “I believe that anything we create artistically is a representation of our selves or something that we’re trying to deal with. Through the metaphor of the art that’s been created, conversations can happen.”
Conversations around the art can help students gain insights into how they become triggered emotionally. “If they have awareness through a piece of art, and through my guidance as a therapist, about why they get in fights with their dad, for example, then that awareness is therapeutic. And we try to move them not only to awareness but to action.”
Ramirez has moved from awareness to activism in his own life. Trained as a visual artist, he recognized early on the healing power of creativity. “Art became the way for me to survive and function,” he says. Now he trains others in art therapy, and has led graduate students on service trips to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. “I wanted to encourage a more global understanding in the students, so they can see the potential of art therapy in communities anywhere in the world.”
He earned his PhD in Expressive Therapies at Lesley University in November, and he’s currently at work on a documentary film called “Art Therapy: The Movie,” which received its initial funding through a Kickstarter campaign. The film, which originated with the Dominican Republic trip, looks at the ways art is being used around the world to help people overcome traumatic experiences, including the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti.
Ramirez doesn’t plan on slowing down. “I’m still learning from other cultures, I’m growing as an art therapist. I want to say to people in other parts of the world, “I want to build a program with you.”
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