Although the status of the nation-wide public health emergency due to the COVID pandemic was recently downgraded, a physical and mental health crisis in this country remains. Post-pandemic staff shortages in medical institutions around the US speak to the growing gap in care, in large part because employees no longer feel safe–financially, physically, or emotionally–in these high-risk, frontline, demanding positions. In response, the Whitney Museum of American Art has recently partnered with NYC Health and Hospitals agency in offering Art in Medicine workshops for all public hospital employees inspired by artwork on loan from the museum’s collection. The hope is that by developing an “art-centered practice” infused with mindful art observation and creation, employees can develop self care and stress management skills that will help combat burnout syndrome on the job.
Yesterday, inspired by the warmer weather, shifting landscape of the pandemic, and a piece of mixed media art by artist Howardena Pindell, participants were asked to creatively explore the theme of “layering.” They were provided with a range of collage and drawing supplies to engage in an Open Studio Process method of creative writing, artmaking, and self-reflection on their personal exploration of metaphorical layers they wish to examine, keep or shed. The hospital employees in attendance represented various departments within the institution, together creating their own mosaic of different personal experiences and approaches. As they played with, experimented, and engaged in the tactile properties of the materials, self compassion, creative problem solving, and positive perspective-making were emphasized. One participant remarked that she wished she had clear tape so that she could layer her tissue paper pieces in a specific pattern, and a colleague playfully reminded her to “get creative” in finding another way to create the same effect with the materials at hand. Another participant created a vibrant tissue paper flower that blossomed off the page out of the “concrete” below, with each petal representing a layer of herself she wanted to preserve and honor.
Next, a volunteer shared that she first wrote all about how much responsibility she has and the crushing weight of these burdens. She then began making art and exploring the materials at hand, having “no idea what she was doing.” In the end, she realized that she was “playing” in her artwork through her swirling lines and pops of color, which is what she needed most. Their experiences represent a kind of parallel process that can happen when creating intuitively and having one’s inner experience mirror the outside world. Pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott writes, “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” It was a true joy to witness others in their creative processes of discovery yesterday.
Post and Photograph by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Happy Maternal Mental Health month! Early records by Hippocrates from around 500 BC mention birthing women suffering from “agitation” and “delirium” in the perinatal period. Later medical documentation from the 14th century called it “madness” which evolved into “melancholy” and “hysteria” in the 16th century. Hundreds of years later, the field of perinatal mental health was born, finally adopting a feminist, person-centered, evidenced-based clinical lens to address what is now called perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs).
Art therapy is an integrative mental health profession around since the 1940’s, (though humans have of course been using art as therapy since our cave painting days.) It incorporates trauma-informed, sensorimotor-based practices that can be extremely effective in supporting birthing people in coping with challenges along their family building journeys.
The powerful intersection of these fields is only recently being written about, with this groundbreaking text "Art Therapy and Childbearing Issues" edited by Nora Swan-Foster at the top of the list. Grateful for the fellow unicorns, movers, and shakers who are paving the way in developing innovative, compassionate, and creative maternal mental health care. It’s about time! #perinatalarttherapy #pioneerwomen #maternalmentalhealthmatters
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Today is World Maternal Mental Health Day, first established in 2014 to draw awareness to the many socio-emotional challenges perinatal families face. 1 in 5 birthing people and 1 in 10 partners worldwide experience a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD) during pregnancy or postpartum, and yet only 25% of those struggling receive treatment.
There are a kaleidoscope of reasons why new parents don’t seek out help and end up suffering in silence, including stigma around mental health issues and lack of education, awareness, and routine screenings to assess maternal mental health risk factors.
There are also more nuanced reasons perinatal people often don’t disclose the extent of their suffering to loved ones or professionals. Author, therapist, and perinatal mental health pioneer Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW highlights the “ambiguity” factor during this massive life stage transition: “because moods and other internal experiences are expected to fluctuate following childbirth, women sometimes decide it is best to brave any discomfort and hope it goes away by itself.” Often birthing people end up “white knuckling” it through this period on their own as a result, despite the fact that “research literature consistently demonstrates that communities with strong social support provide shelter and yield lower rates of postpartum depression.”
Shame around being judged as an “unfit, ungrateful, or bad” caregiver also heavily influences how much is shared, if any. And yet, especially with anxious, obsessive, or depressive thinking, the critical inner voice only gets louder when extreme distress is avoided, denied, or repressed. Kleiman reminds us, “Depressive thinking can inhibit attempts to deal appropriately with scary thoughts by distorting or exaggerating the possible outcomes of disclosing.” Fears that they are alone in their experience, will be labeled as “crazy,” or become institutionalized or separated from their baby against their are powerful shame-based rationales for avoiding treatment.
Above all, deeply embedded societal messages around motherhood being “the happiest time in a woman’s life” create an environment of toxic positivity where any presence of negative thoughts or feelings becomes taboo or forbidden. Only when the full spectrum of experience around this vulnerable life stage is accepted and shared freely will those struggling feel safe enough to seek help when they need it most. Let’s start today. #maternalMHmatters
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Excerpts adapted from from Kleiman (2010) Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts.
Original Photograph by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash