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The Role of Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery

One afternoon at the Arcadia Trails INTEGRIS Center for Addiction Recovery, two groups of patients were hard at work on a project. Using craft supplies like cardboard, hot glue guns, pipe cleaners and more, the challenge was simple on the surface: build a house.

One team built a house with a solid foundation.

The other used tape to construct their house and put a “pool” made of colored rocks on the roof.

Needless to say, that house fell down.

"During the exercise, you saw the team members come together for problem-solving. Each person on the team took on a certain role and responsibility. But the challenge wasn’t just about building a house - it was an exercise to help them learn about themselves and what an addictive family looks like," says Michael J. Hanes, LPC, ATR-BC, Director of Clinical Services at Arcadia Trails.

"We talked about what made that certain house collapse. We talked about the weak bonds and the weight on the roof, and they could see that the weight was addiction. So, we came back and reinforced the new house to create a strong foundation."

Metaphorically, the house represented a patient’s life of addiction. Without that art project, the lesson and the realizations may have come much more slowly.

Welcome to art therapy

Art therapy is one of the many tools Arcadia Trails uses to address addiction and recovery at its 40-bed in-patient treatment facility. Unlike many other substance abuse centers, Arcadia Trails uses practices ranging from art therapy and mindfulness practices to traditional therapy and group support.

Hanes, who is the driving force behind the art therapy at Arcadia Trails, says incorporating expressive arts isn’t just a creative process for his patients — it’s vital to their recovery.

What is art therapy?

There is a difference between using art in therapy and art therapy itself, Hanes says. Using art in therapy usually refers to using art as a means to an end. Art therapy, however, centers around the creative process as a healing tool.

The advantages of using art therapy are multi-fold, Hanes says, and the process can:

  • Help patients externalize feelings through non-destructive means.
  • Help therapists and patients gain insight into what the patient is feeling through art representation of repressed or unconscious emotions.
  • Make patients feel active and empowered by exploring their symbolic work and their growing maturity to solve problems.

In a nutshell, art therapy helps patients express their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression and cope with recovery.

In addition, art allows a person to convey ideas and emotions and explore issues in a way that allows that person to communicate in a non-verbal way. Many patients initially feel hesitant about exploring and addressing those issues in group therapy or in conversation.

"Everyone gets art therapy if they are in treatment here. What makes us so different from other facilities is that we offer a lot of creative process services like drum therapy, art and mindfulness," Hanes says. "Art therapy has been used quite a bit in psychiatry and for drug and alcohol addiction. It’s now booming and being used in different ways, like in burn centers, cancer centers and for trauma recovery."

Hanes himself discovered art therapy while studying art and art education in college. He met another student who majored in art therapy, and the subject instantly fascinated him.

"It combined both of the things I loved, which was art and helping people," he says. "It was perfect."

After working as an art therapist at numerous in-patient psychiatric facilities, Hanes became the director of Rolling Hills in Enid, Oklahoma. When the position at Arcadia Trails opened up in November 2018, he jumped at the chance. 

The power of expressive arts

"Whether it’s visual arts, music, poetry or drama, we try to incorporate the expressive arts in our therapy. The lives of our patients have been shattered and many feel they have lost their humanity. These expressive arts are what makes us human," says Hanes. "This is a place where people recognize addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, not as having weak willpower or being a terrible person."

"Art and creativity can be very contagious. For adults, it can be intimidating to try, especially if you’ve never done art before, but we work with them, encourage them and engage them in the creative process. It’s the process that counts," he says.

Art therapy at Arcadia Trails

The INTEGRIS Arcadia Trails Center for Addiction Recovery is the perfect setting for artistic expression. Situated among the gently rolling hills and oak forests between Lake Arcadia and Edmond on the medical campus of INTEGRIS Health Edmond, Arcadia Trails is Oklahoma’s newest and most advanced residential drug and alcohol treatment center. Addiction is holistically addressed, along with its co-occurring and compounding issues – mental illness and trauma – while incorporating the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"When you walk in, you are walking into a gorgeous building which is state-of-the-art and very nice," Hanes says. "We treat addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, and so those receiving treatment deserve a wonderful space to do their healing."