Therapist uses art to help people express feelings


The Westminster office of art therapist Pamela T. Manner is filled with artwork that probably will never decorate a home or hang in a museum.

Its value is in other areas. The art helps its creators to express feelings they can't verbalize and allows them to look at their problems from a different perspective.

"It [art therapy] helps to get beyond the verbal words that people can use as denial and gets into more of the unconscious," said Ms. Manner, who has a private art therapy practice at the Center For the Healing Arts in Westminster. "It enhances people's personal awareness of conflicts or problems.

"There's just something about artwork that's healing."

Ms. Manner works part time at Springfield Hospital Center, as its only art therapist, and for Prologue Mental Health Services on the Springfield grounds, in addition to her work at the healing arts center.

Scattered around her Westminster office are some of her clients' works in progress. Her clients include people with multiple personality disorder, those suffering from depression and children with learning disabilities, as well as some who are gifted and talented.

One woman who has a multiple personality disorder recently completed a piece that addresses the theme of her lost childhood.

The three-dimensional piece features a bloodied baby doll and toy mouse, pieces of broken glass and broken watch parts. The work is set against a map of the United States.

Ms. Manner explains that the woman, who is in her mid-40s, feels she never really had a childhood. Her family moved frequently -- which the map represents -- and the bloody mouse symbolizes the death of a pet she loved.

"This is about the anger and the rage destroying her life . . . it's a release," Ms. Manner said of the piece. "It helps us to go back and look at exactly where the feelings came from and why they're as strong as they are."

A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Ms. Manner first used art in a therapeutic way during a summer job when she taught weaving at Stella Maris Hospice in Towson.

"You could watch through the weaving how people felt," she said. "If they were upset or distracted, they would mis-pedal and there would be mistakes in the fabric."

After the weaving course, Ms. Manner took an art therapy course at the University of Maryland and became "hooked." Then she completed a two-year art therapy and counseling master's program in Washington, D.C. The program was operated by Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo.

Art therapy can be the primary treatment for a patient, or it can be used in conjunction with other types of therapy, she said. For example, her clients might also be working with a psychiatrist or a family counselor, and in these cases she works closely with the other therapist.

Sometimes, Ms. Manner says, she discovers something in a client's artwork that the other therapist should know about.

Certain images, such as violent drawings or tombstones, indicate a potential for self-abuse or suicide. In some cases, the images might be more subtle. Frequent use of dark colors, for example, might alert Ms. Manner to a dangerous situation.

"Blood, guts and gore don't always mean somebody is suicidal; it has to be in a specific context," she said. "Sometimes it can just be a release of pent-up rage."

Over time, patterns and themes may emerge in drawings, and a patient's progress can be captured in art.

For example, Ms. Manner said, a patient suffering from depression might "go from blacks and grays to the full spectrum of colors."

Ms. Manner also works with children who have learning disabilities, and with gifted and talented children, many of whom aren't challenged enough at school.

Art therapy can be used as a diagnostic tool for children who have learning disabilities. Ms. Manner is able to administer a variety of drawing tests to determine if a child is where he should be developmentally.

Although art therapy is becoming more accepted in recent years, she's waiting for the day when insurance companies reimburse for the service.

Ms. Manner, who said she's the only art therapist who lives and works in Carroll, thinks art therapy should be in schools, mental health day programs and hospitals.

"There's lots of places it could be if people would be receptive and open to what it can provide," she said.

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