In honor of Creative Arts Therapy week, I want to highlight a recent “Art and Object” article about the fascinating intersectional field of “neuroaesthetics,” which is the use of evolving brain imaging technology to measure exactly how engaging in visual art, music, and dance impacts the human body and corresponding behavior, with evidence that only 20 minutes of art exposure daily can positively impacts both. Susan Magsamen, founder, and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shares, “Curiosity, surprise, wonder — all attributes found in art for the maker or the beholder — these are really important for human development. Researchers are finding that we as humans are hard-wired for aesthetic experiences. The arts are not just fundamental aspects of our humanity, but also essential to our well-being…the way we grow and learn is through neuroplasticity. The more enriched environments, the more sensorial — not chaotic, but in a way that feels safe and often novel — is how our brains grow dramatically.”
Similarly, in“Atomic Habits,” author James Clear emphasizes, “the human body has about 11 million sensory receptors. Approximately 10 million of those are dedicated to sight.. Given that we are more dependent on vision than any other sense, it should come as no surprise that visual clues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior.” With the help of contributions from neuroaesthetics research, the invaluable and ongoing work of Creative Arts Therapists across both clinical and non-clinical settings, and spikes in mental and physical illness since the pandemic began, other fields are finally recognizing the life-enhancing power of art. Magsamen continues, “...because of noninvasive technology allowing us to get inside heads, we’re understanding more neurobiology at a detailed level. And the only reason that matters is so we can create better solutions using the arts for personalized prescriptions, fine-tuning what to dose and dosages, and understanding how to apply art forms for healing."
Indeed, doctors nation-wide are now “prescribing” art museum visits for some patients and even burnt out hospital employees. For example, the NYC Health and Hospitals Arts in Medicine program via The Whitney Museum of American Art uses professional art therapists and museum educators to facilitate staff and patient wellness programming inspired by art collections featured in their facilities. Magsamen concludes, “We have relegated art to only entertainment or enrichment – not lifeblood or birthright. We want to put art at the center of our lives, not as something that would be nice to have.”
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMHC
Original photo by Marcus Spiske via Unsplash
It was such a pleasure to be featured on the “Fit as a Fiddle” podcast with my colleague Dr. Sneha Gazi discussing how art therapy can be helpful in navigating more “messy” life stages throughout the reproductive spectrum, building creative resilience to manage stress, and learning to make meaning from overwhelming or traumatic experiences. Listen to the podcast or watch the video here!
As Black History Month draws to a close and we enter Women’s History Month, it feels fitting to highlight a major issue that intersects with both communities: Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders. PMADs are one of the most common medical complications related to child-bearing, affecting roughly 1 in 5 birthing people, including partners.
In the past six months, ten children tragically lost their lives to the unspeakable actions of mothers who were all suffering from severe and untreated symptoms of PMADs, including Erin Merdy in Brooklyn, Dimone Fleming in the Bronx, Paulesha Green-Pulliam in San Francisco and Lindsay Clancy in a Massachusetts town. And yet, the only one of the most recent tragedies to make national headlines was that of Lindsay Clancy’s, a white labor and delivery nurse in a Boston suburb. In response, perinatal mental health Hajara Kutty writes, “...it is disturbing and hurtful that these same conversations failed to materialize when Black children were at the center of similar tragedies. In the absence of a relevant angle, many media stories involving the racialized mothers morphed into narratives about how they lived in shelters, were on the brink of eviction or facing custody battles. The implication is that these mothers took their children’s lives because of hardship. As those in the field of postpartum mental health, we know this is not the case. All of these women were postpartum and many were exhibiting bizarre behavior before the tragedies (a key symptom of postpartum psychosis).”
The media frequently mislabels symptoms of postpartum psychosis as postpartum depression, further muddying and stigmatizing the public’s already distorted awareness of maternal mental health risks. Postpartum psychosis usually occurs around 1-2 weeks postpartum and impacts roughly 1 of 1,000 postpartum birthing people. It is often associated with previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder and the most common symptoms are severe agitation, delusional or bizarre thinking, hallucinations, insomnia, confusion, & dissociative feelings. Although a fairly rare condition, it is both preventable and treatable with timely and appropriate medical attention. Kutty concludes, “We need to add our voices to steer the conversations to the topic of postpartum mental health whenever the tragedy involves any mom within a year of giving birth. If postpartum mental illnesses don’t discriminate, then neither should we.”
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Original Image by Max Larochelle via Unsplash
Just three weeks after George Floyd’s murder, 26 year-old Sha-Asia Semple died shortly after the birth of her first child due to fatal errors in properly administering her epidural and a subsequent failed intubation in a Brooklyn public hospital. In September of 2021 in Queens, NY 29 year-old mother of two Denise Williams died 48 hours after being admitted to the hospital for complaints of postpartum depression. Although at first the cause of her death was unknown, later reports confirmed it was a pulmonary embolism that had gone undetected. According to her family, Ms. Williams had been under enormous physical and emotional stress during her two month postpartum period, but hadn’t been able to address her own health needs until it was too late.
Although seemingly unrelated incidents, both cases involved the untimely death of two black mothers in NYC related to huge disparities in our maternal healthcare system. In New York City, Black women are nine times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. Research suggests that racial disparities in maternal deaths are also linked to the fact that Black women are often more likely to deliver at hospitals with a lower quality of obstetric care, ranging from lower-performing doctors to understaffing, which forces patients in distress to wait longer. This breeds negligence and incompetence, making tragic but preventable cases like Sha-Asia and Denise’s more common.
In a post-Roe America, there are more barriers than ever preventing black birthing people from getting the critical perinatal care they deserve, including lack of paid parental leave as well as lack of insurance coverage for postpartum doula care or mental and behavioral health care for PMADs, (approximately 80% of which go undetected due to lack of awareness, routine screening, and stigma.) The words of Shawnee Benton Gibson, whose daughter Shamony Gibson also died from a preventable pulmonary embolism in 2019, echo louder than ever: “Black wombs matter. Black minds matter. Black bodies matter. Black communities matter.”
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Original photo via Unsplash
A recent "Discover" magazine article highlighted the benefits of visual art exposure on mental health. Viewing visual art activates the same brain reward systems as other pleasurable, highly sensory activities. Studies have shown that regardless of the context of where the art is observed–whether it's a gallery, museum, or even an online exhibit from home–other physiological benefits can include lowered stress levels, blood pressure, and anxiety when engaged in mindful art observation for at least two minutes. “Maybe it makes you think about your identity, evokes certain memories or elicits different sensations. This may allow you to learn new things about yourself and make the art-viewing experience something transformative,” reflects art therapist Sarah Vollmann.
Imagine if this positive impact could be translated to stressful workplace environments as well. Particularly for those in “frontline” helping professions during the ongoing pandemic, caregiver burnout remains an underreported yet incredibly common mental health syndrome exacerbated by lack of systemic support and exposure to chronic stress. This can lead employees to feel “checked out,” undervalued, resentful, and/or reactive, which in turn, negatively impacts job performance and quality of patient care. In response, the Whitney Museum of American Art has recently partnered with NYC Health + Hospitals Arts in Medicine program to provide integrative arts-based wellness workshops to hospital employees inspired by art pieces on loan from their collection and featured throughout the medical facility. Yesterday I was privileged to begin a new role in co-facilitating the first of these integrative workshops at a Manhattan hospital, where we applied creative resilience skill-building, social-emotional learning, and art observation mindfulness techniques to creative responses pieces and personal reflection. Vollmann continues, “I believe that the importance of art cannot be overstated. We are living in difficult times, and struggles with mental health are on the rise. The exhibits of museums and galleries can provide a sanctuary of sorts from the chaos and stress of our daily lived experiences, and, conversely, they can help us to face and make meaning of the struggles that we face.” Now, through this program, we are working to bring these crucial creative safe spaces to the workplace as well. #burnoutprevention #caregiverburnout #mentalhealthawareness #artheals #creativeresilience #mindfulness #safespaces
Post, artwork, and photograph by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
“I think this is me,” one of my best mom friends sent to me with a hand smacking face emoji and a link to a recent “Parents” magazine article entitled “How the Snowplow Parenting Trend Affects Kids.” My friend, I may add, happens to be a brilliant early childhood educator and BIPOC identifying military solo parent of two highly sensitive boys, not unlike my own. I skimmed the article, citing various parenting experts and mental health professionals and listing the negative effects of overprotecting our children–including low frustration tolerance, poor problem solving skills, learned helplessness, and high anxiety. Although, in theory, I agree that children need to learn experientially by trial and error so that they can better cope with distress in the future and that parents shouldn’t “hover” or overly interfere with their children’s every concern, I fundamentally disagree with the covert parent-shaming that is often the subtext of these parenting buzzwords that have become mainstream, like “snowplow parent, lawnmower parent, helicopter parent, tiger mom,” etc. etc.
Pediatrician and child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the term “good enough mother” in the 1950's to challenge archetypes around the “perfect,” saintly, martyr-like mother or the now debunked “refrigerator mother” stereotype. His theory posits that in order to be a “good enough” parent and ensure an infant’s healthy biopsychosocial development, parents must do a delicate balancing act that alternates between attuning to their every need while also allowing for a degree of frustration to encourage self-soothing and begin a healthy path toward autonomy. To me, this continues to be a parenting model worthy of striving toward.
As a pandemic parent specializing in perinatal mental health, I can say from personal and professional experience that today’s parents are under more strain and scrutiny than ever. Add to the mix the maddening impact of social comparison via social media, ongoing maternal mental health crisis, overturning of Roe v. Wade compromising our basic reproductive rights, the devastatingly high black maternal mortality rate, and school shootings on almost a monthly basis in this country, and it becomes almost a cruel joke when we ask our parents to “back off” and “relax.” Hypervigilance and protecting our young is evolutionary and adaptive, and instead of pathologizing and mocking the unique challenges of parenting in this age of anxiety and maintaining our own mental health at the same time, why not offer up some solidarity, validation, or compassion? Wherever you fall on the spectrum of protecting our most vulnerable, trust that it is not only “good enough” but that society at large needs to do better in both recognizing and supporting that.
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Original image by Joy Wang via Unsplash
www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dsCmWZ0V_UCheryl Beck (2018) shares that up to 45% of new mothers have reported experiencing birth trauma and adds that “birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder.” Indeed, if a birthing person experiences or perceives that they and/or their baby were in danger of injury or death during childbirth, their birth can be defined as traumatic–psychologically, physically, or both (even if others present may have perceived it as routine.) Common themes present in those who have shared traumatic birth narratives include:
Art-making and creative processing can provide a symbolic container of overwhelming experiences, helping with the reconstruction of fragmented memories and emotional responses. Wolf & King (2020) summarize how art therapy “facilitates the organization and integration of traumatic memories, reactivates positive emotions, serves as a vehicle for exposure and externalization of difficult content, and reduces heightened arousal responses.” Art therapist Swan-Foster (2020) poignantly asks, “What if we viewed pregnancy and birth through a lens of cultural humility and feminism that honors a woman’s desire to have control of herself throughout pregnancy and birth while holding the knowledge that these experiences may be out of control and traumatic?” As trauma is so often stored in the body or in the mind as imagery, art therapy helps to navigate between these polarities and honors the “gray” area of personal experience. Learn more and experience how intuitive artmaking and creative processing can help perinatal professionals and birthing folk creatively cope with trauma experiences at the upcoming virtual conference "Healing Traumatic Birth: Tools and Techniques from Psychodrama, Dance, and the Expressive Arts" via PATTCH.
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Original photo by Patricia Prudente via Unsplash
Compassion fatigue and burnout syndrome are real, especially for birth workers, healthcare professionals, parents and professional caregivers who continue to work on the "frontlines" of an ongoing pandemic and maternal mental health crisis. Aside from individual and group therapy, I offer arts-based wellness workshops as a chance for these populations to reconnect with their "inner artists" and immerse themselves in a much needed creative self-care break. No artistic experience is necessary and basic art materials can be used. Here are some mixed media images of artwork I've created during workshops facilitated this fall using an adapted open studio process method. Contact me for more info about upcoming workshops including availability and rates. #selfcare #burnout #compassionfatigue #vicarioustrauma #birthtrauma #grief #birthworkers #pandemic #healthcare #maternalmentalhealth #perinatalmentalhealth #openstudioprocess #arttherapy #perinataltherapist #cocreate #artastherapy #artheals
Holiday season is always emotionally charged, especially for new parents who are stressed about introducing their new bundles to loved ones, attending first family-friendly social gatherings since emerging from their pregnancy or newborn “bubble,” feeling pressure to host, or trying to present themselves as more “put together” than they actually feel during this massive life stage transition. A recent article from “Self Magazine” reminds us how support for new parents can come in many forms. Alexis Barad-Cutler, mother and director of the maternal advocacy nonprofit called The Chamber of Mothers, advocates, “Helping is not holding the sleeping baby. It means letting the new parent nap, doing laundry, doing dishes, or tidying up.” Indeed, rest and sleep are especially important for a new parent’s recovery and mental well-being. Chronic sleep deprivation can significantly contribute to symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders for either parent, which is why some savvy baby registries now include “sleep funds” to help new parents afford overnight support such as a baby nurse or postpartum doula. Barad-Cutler believes, “giving new parents the gift of rest is so important to their mental health, recovery, and their relationships.”
But protecting parental sleep is not the only way to offer support. Sending loving texts with no pressure or expectation for a response, having a hot meal delivered to their doorstep, or, most importantly, holding space for however they are adjusting to new parenthood in that moment can all be enormously helpful. It is rare that new parents feel they can reveal the “messiness” around this life stage without guilt, shame, social comparison, or fear of judgment. Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW of The Motherhood Center explains,“We need to give new parents permission to talk about how hard this can be. If we can normalize the hard parts, maybe then we can start to address some of the fundamental needs in this country like adequate and extended paid family leave, subsidized childcare, and better supporting the needs of new and expecting parents.” #newparents #holidayseason #emotionalsupport #postpartum #perinatalmentalhealth #stress #parenting #cocreatearttherapy
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT PMH-C
Original Photo by Josh Boot via Unsplash
In the 1920s social psychologist Graham Wallas proposed one of the first models of the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and implementation. In the midst of this season of transition, with temperatures fluctuating daily and a kaleidoscope of leaves changing color all around us, it can be helpful to introduce a creative practice into your routine, which can be paralleled with the “preparation” phase before the hibernation/incubation of winter. This can be daunting for those who struggle with seasonal affective disorders, don’t identify with the Artist title, or perhaps have role fatigue and have gotten stuck in a creativity block. Trish Duggan writes in a recent “Rolling Stones” article, “…the need for art does not always strike at the most convenient times. In fact, the need for art may come when you are feeling the least inspired. But it is at these times when it is critical to be intentional about making space for it. From my perspective, art, creativity and imagination are essential to human mental well-being. If you can’t create a lot, create a little.” Indeed, formal art training with traditional art supplies are not necessary for living creatively. Creative personal expression can look like a 10 minute journal doodle, adding a new spice to an old recipe, arranging fruit in an aesthetically pleasing way on the countertop, making a seasonal playlist for friends, improvising a dance to your latest favorite song, engaging your child in imaginative play to help them finish their vegetables, etc. In my clinical opinion, any and all expressions of personal creativity can be therapeutic, especially if it helps you tap into a playful or mindful state. Creating “art for art’s sake” is an exercise of self-care that can cultivate self-compassion and aid in healing. So, whether you resonate with this season of change, dread it, or somewhere in between, finding small daily outlets for your own personal creativity can help you weather it.
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT PMH-C
Original Photo by Zeynep Sumer