S7 - Developing a Psycho- educational and Art Therapy Programme for Women Who Cope by Self Harming

Abstract for TAoAT 2002 by Camilla Hall

This project drew extensively upon the pioneering work of Lois Arnold at the Bristol Crisis Service for Women and the group facilitators’ own experience of working with self harmers on an individual basis. The group was co-run by myself and a psychotherapist colleague, Sally Baldwin.

The group programme was structured to take into account the psychopathology of a client group who have difficulty verbalizing feelings and whose somatic symptoms have developed to represent memories and emotions that cannot be thought about or expressed. The programme consisted of a psychoeducational / support component followed by a coffee break and then an art therapy component. Limited exposure to different types of experience were thus offered, allowing a pattern of connection and retreat to be respected.

The use of charts containing information about self harm and the art work served as transitional objects that enabled the women to approach the underlying causes in an oblique way. Feelings and memories stirred by the charts were often given form through the imagery, which as a non-verbal form of communication was easier for group members to tolerate without shutting down or retreating internally. Many of the experiences group members were struggling to cope with were rooted in the pre-verbal stages of childhood and were thus accompanied by difficulties in verbalization. As a client group prone to action and deficient in words, images were a useful means of expressing their internal states and primitive psychological defences. Group members were prone to retreating into themselves for protection and their underlying anger also made them cut off in order to protect others. Avoidance patterns were marked amongst group members and obsessive symptoms defended against feelings of worthlessness and dirtiness and ‘going high’ (a manic defence) was a way of escaping psychic deadness and pretending things were ‘fine’. Some images appeared to be chaotic evacuations of unconnected senses, thoughts and ideas. For some group members the artwork was helpful with the retrieval of ‘lost’ memories and the recording of memories into coherent order. Images were also used as repositories for negative or potentially overwhelming feelings. Sculptures were thumped or destroyed and images thrown away.

Summary of key ideas:
Co-working a programme for women who self harm.

Client group:
Adult women living in the community.

Biography of Camilla Hall

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