- By Art For Good
Those grim times required everyone to isolate their household from the world, family, and friends for the greater good of public health. Since then, Singapore has endured and has begun her road to recovery after the suffocating period of Circuit Breaker measures. The effects of social isolation, however, has left an indelible mark on the mental health scene in Singapore.
Media coverage on this issue has increased, with greater calls for attention and more statistics reported. As of 5 October 2020 it was reported that the National Care Hotline (NCH) set up on 10 April 2020, just past the beginning of the Circuit Breaker, has taken over 30,000 calls, with more than 12,000 of them needing mental health support.
A survey conducted by the company Ipsos during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker has shown that a quarter of Singaporeans in the survey have reported poor mental health, and 18% of all survey participants have indicated that their mental health was only getting worse.
While it is good news all round that more light is being shed on the situation of mental health in Singapore, my curiosity was piqued by one aspect from the various articles by different media platforms: in general, the articles will list a series of hotlines for counselling help, but almost none of them would elaborate on any other form of therapy. It was as if the face for mental help had become a one-dimensional affair, void of variety, deprived of depth.
These hotlines do not give much in the way of information on the mental healthcare that could be provided at a glance. An article by Channel News Asia has brought up the challenges people face when seeking out the appropriate medium of mental healthcare, with some of the points mentioned being that people facing mental health challenges would already be subject to the stress from their mental health issue, affecting their ability to search accurately for information to help themselves.
There is a certain deficiency in the dissemination of information – One would not know, just from looking at a hotline, of the other forms of mental therapy. Looking at a string of numbers would not be able to detail that mental therapy can include animal-assisted therapy, art therapy, hypnotherapy, and more.
We are all human after all, unique in our special ways; and it is only fair for us to be armed with the knowledge to make the best decisions for our health. With that being said, the range of possible therapies available is just too much to cover in a single article in any detail, which is why I chose to focus my attention on only one: art therapy.
Art therapy typically has clients use different creative mediums, ranging from something as simple as colouring to more complex activities such as sculpting, to express themselves. A certified therapist can then use the information expressed to help the client understand and resolve any underlying issues.
The benefits that art therapy have been documented in various studies, with some studies showing evidence that art programs can boost confidence, enhance pro-social skills, and improve the participant’s abilities to resolve conflict. Other studies also detail how art helps people with physical disabilities to focus on their positive memories, giving them respite from the negative emotions and perceptions around their disability.
These powers of art to uplift people and alleviate the pain of people roused my interest to investigate art therapy in Singapore. After all, given how there has been an increase in the number of people seeking mental help, surely there should be articles giving it coverage.
Thus, I began digging for articles on art therapy. I found several news articles detailing instances of events that had included art therapy, though the top searches were dated at least several years ago, and as the years grew more recent, so did the scarcity of articles on art therapy in Singapore.
Unable to find more current articles that might help me understand the part art therapy plays in the context of COVID-19, I decided to look to other avenues to learn more about art therapy, namely, different non-government organisations such as Art for Good and The Red Pencil. These organisations host a plethora of art therapy programs aimed to better the lives of people.
Through my searches and inquiries, I have had the fortune of securing an interview with Ms Amanda Chen, a certified Art Therapist and founder of Art for Good, to better understand how art therapy would best serve the mental health scene in Singapore with the added benefit of her professional perspectives.
I opened up the interview by asking about when art therapy could be recommended, given how it might be too optimistic to expect art therapy as a miracle cure for everyone. Ms Amanda Chen explained that art therapy would usually be recommended for people who have a personal interest in art in the first place. As the selected form of therapy, art can be a non-invasive method to interact with the client and address the problems they face.
“For children who are very young, who are non-verbal, that [art] would probably be the best approach for them. Especially if they have some kind of interest in art.” Was one of the examples Ms Amanda Chen elaborated with.
Now knowing that art therapy would be better suited for people with an interest or open to the concept to therapeutic art, how could art therapy help those people with the mental health challenges arising from COVID-19?
Ms Amanda Chen answered my question saying that while art therapy could be suited for people of all ages, the therapy must be tailored to the client’s needs for that statement to ring true. She began explaining to me that: “When you come into a therapy session or an art therapy session, you are working with different objectives.” In relation to COVID-19, the benefits that art therapy can provide would boil down to what a client hopes to achieve through the therapy. Would they want to heal from some trauma caused by family violence from the Circuit Breaker? Are they seeking solace after the months of isolation?
This also applies in instances where relatives join in to create art with a client. When asked about this, Ms Amanda Chen talked about how a bonding session between siblings might differ from a bonding session between parents and their child; the purposes for partaking in the creation of art is more than just a casual decision. It is one that is carefully considered with the intended outcomes of the clients in mind to chart a proper path to recovery.
Ms Amanda Chen also mentioned other considerations, such as disabilities, that might affect their ability to do art. With that in mind, Ms Amanda Chen said that: “you make it easy for them, and you help them process certain things that they might find it difficult to process.” The whole process of therapy is flexible and adapted to the circumstances of the clients; the main and most important goal would be to promote faster, smoother, recovery.
Now knowing the place art therapy has within the mental health picture during this pandemic, how then, does art therapy measure up to its more common cousins?
While it is true that common media articles almost exclusively feature help hotlines and counselling, they do so for good reason. There is a successful track record of help hotlines and counselling and there is no denying that the more commonly advertised forms of mental health therapy produce results.
“It is said that art therapy is very good for trauma because the way that we see trauma is through images,” Ms Amanda Chen said, before going on to explain how art as a visual medium matches up with the way traumatic incidences plays out in our minds, which makes it an invaluable bridge to access any unconscious information that a client may have. With this knowledge, therapists would be better positioned to understand and engage with their clients to begin the recovery process.
In the event that a client is unable to communicate verbally either because they are not capable of finding the words to do so, or simply do not wish to talk, art therapy can also step in to facilitate a form of communication. “It helps you; it calms you… That as you are making [art], you also want to talk about [their problem]” was another one of the positive possible outcomes Ms Amanda Chen mentioned about art.
However, the difference between art therapy and its competition is not all that quantitative.
Ms Amanda Chen continued to point out that: “Art therapy is very similar to counselling, but we use art as an intervention tool to help bridge through difficult situations and circumstances.” Art in essence is just another medium to engage and help a client recover. It has its benefits when used for mental trauma, but the choice of therapy should once again differ to the client’s situation to achieve maximum effectiveness.
Ultimately though, she reinforces the fact that any treatment of any kind will be carefully assessed by the therapist. Ms Amanda Chen describes it as a “client-centred approach” – if a certain form of therapy does not work for the client, be it art therapy or other forms of therapy, Ms Amanda Chen has indicated that the therapists involved with the client would communicate with each other to determine the current activities that may or may not be working for the client. Depending on the situation at hand, the therapists might decide that a change of therapy or even a change of therapist might suit the client better.
On this note, Ms Amanda Chen had added that there are art therapy programmes available in the Singapore Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as an example of wider and more flexible options available to clients that can help them with their mental health. Looking into this, I have also found that art therapy is also available in other institutions like the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
As such, while it may not be possible to land the perfect therapy when first contacting an accredited hotline, a certified therapy organisation, or government-supported mental help body, the therapists that one would come into contact with would strive to find the best therapy or combination of therapies for the client.
Talking with Ms Amanda Chen has given me a better understanding of the role art therapy may play in Singapore. Art therapy should not be exalted over all other forms of therapy, but neither should it be belittled. Art therapy is a piece of a greater puzzle on our journey to better mental health, with areas where its application would be appropriate, people it would be better suited for.
It is more important to consider what kind of therapy best suits one’s needs. Though, if the form of selected therapy ends up being unsuited for oneself, it will not be the end of the line. In this journey to mental wellness, the professionals will look out for your good.
 “MOH | News Highlights”. 2020. Moh.Gov.Sg. https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/the-national-care-hotline-and-mental-resilience.
 “Singaporeans And Mental Health During The Circuit Breaker”. 2020. Ipsos. https://www.ipsos.com/en-sg/singaporeans-and-mental-health-during-circuit-breaker.
 Wright, Robin, Lindsay John, Ramona Alaggia, and Julia Sheel. 2006. “Community-Based Arts Program For Youth In Low-Income Communities: A Multi-Method Evaluation”. Child And Adolescent Social Work Journal 23 (5-6): 635-652. doi:10.1007/s10560-006-0079-0.
 Stuckey, Heather L., and Jeremy Nobel. 2010. “The Connection Between Art, Healing, And Public Health: A Review Of Current Literature”. American Journal Of Public Health 100 (2): 254-263. doi:10.2105/ajph.2008.156497.