What is wellbeing? (and why does it matter?)

What is wellbeing?

It is easy to think that good health means just the absence of disease, injury or pain. But is that really what we are all aiming for? Wellbeing takes things a few steps further. The New Economics Foundation describes wellbeing as “how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole.”

So it’s more than just being healthy. It’s also more than having material wealth: “Some people believe that wealth is a fast track to happiness. Yet various international studies have shown that it is the quality of our personal relationships, not the size of our bank balances, which has the greatest effect on our state of wellbeing.” (Better Health Victoria). Wellbeing may be linked to the deep satisfaction we find in our social connections.

It might relate to a persons social, economic, psychological or medical state. The Black Dog Institute says “In positive psychology, wellbeing is a heightened state that’s beyond just feeling happy or having good health. It’s a condition of flourishing, where we thrive in many aspects of our lives.”

Why does it matter? 

“…perhaps few subjects are more crucial to understanding the world, and our place in it, than understanding what it means for human beings to flourish” – Happiness and Wellbeing Research

Wellbeing isn’t just about attaining some heightened happy state. It is also about keeping us resilient in the face of stressors. “A strong sense of wellbeing contributes to good mental health. It also helps to protect us from feelings of hopelessness and depression, acting as a ‘guardian’ of our mental health” says the Black Dog Institute.

How do we find wellbeing?

Wellbeing is found through having many helpful elements present in our lives. These may include (but not be limited to):

  • feeling relatively confident in yourself and have positive self-esteem
  • feeling and express a range of emotions
  • using our strengths
  • building and maintaining good relationships with others
  • feeling engaged with the world around you
  • finding pleasure in losing ourselves in things we find challenging and enjoyable (aka attaining ‘flow’)
  • contributing to a ‘greater’ cause in a way that creates meaning
  • connecting with feelings of gratitude, satisfaction and contentment
  • being stimulated ‘enough’ by challenges, new experiences and learning
  • living and work productively
  • coping with the stresses of daily life
  • adapting and managing in times of change and uncertainty

Wellbeing takes ongoing focus and care 

Wellbeing is not a static state where we achieve it once and for all and can then forget about it. Instead we may need to revisit the things in life that help us feel well, and do this again and again, especially in the face of challenges. One new definition is that wellbeing is the “balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced” (Dodge, Daly, Huyton, & Sanders 2012).

“Wellbeing is not a beach you go and lie on. It’s a sort of dynamic dance and there’s movement in that all the time and actually it’s the functuality of that movement which actually is true levels of wellbeing (Nic Marks, Radio 4, 7 January 2012)

Setting up some regular practices, or habits, and some social structures that embed our wellbeing activities might help.

For example:

  • making a regular catch up date with friends that help you feel engaged, confident, and free to express a range of emotions
  • finding paid or volunteer work where you can use your strengths and contribute to a greater cause
  • signing up for a new course or class where you can meet people and learn new skills
  • deciding to call key friends or family members for a chat on a regular basis rather than relying mostly on social media for contact
  • having some ‘go to’ activities or resources that you can use in times of stress
  • having some hobbies or activities that you can immerse yourself in and that are both challenging and enjoyable
  • doing volunteer work as a way to extend your social networks
  • working on your self image with a counsellor or coach
  • having a counsellor, therapeutic group or support group where you can deepen skills in relationships and express a range of emotions
  • practicing acknowledging and accepting stressors and challenges through journalling, meditation, or other forms of reflection and self acceptance
  • attending to any social, economic, psychological or medical issues in your life that may be reducing wellbeing, including getting help where needed

Of course the activities that help might look different for everyone, and we may draw on some of these resources more at some times than others.

How does revisiting the concept of wellbeing help in your situation? Which aspects of a flourishing life might you want to attend to going forward? 


[Note: text in bold /emphasis in text by this author, not the original sources].


Black Dog Institute ‘What is Wellbeing?’ https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/clinical-resources/wellness/general-wellbeing

Better Health Victoria https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/wellbeing

Dodge, Daly, Huyton, & Sanders (2012) ‘The challenge of defining wellbeing’ International Journal of Wellbeing http://www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/viewFile/89/238?origin=publicati

Edinburgh Napier University https://www.napier.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/research-environment/research-themes/wellbeing

Mind UK www.mind.org.uk 

New Economics Foundation (2012) Measuring Wellbeing: A guide for practitioners, London: New Economics Foundation.

Happiness and Well-Being: Integrating Research Across the Disciplines. Saint Louis University. Wellbeing Research FAQ http://www.happinessandwellbeing.org/wellbeing-research-faq


Image by leninscape on Pixabay

Grief Awareness

Loss and grief are fundamental to human life. Grief can be defined as the response to the loss in all of its totality – including its physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual manifestations – and as a natural and normal reaction to loss. Put simply, grief is the price we pay for love, and a natural consequence of forming emotional bonds to people, projects and possessions. – Christopher Hall MAPS, Director, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

Grief is something that can occur for many reasons.The kinds of losses that can cause grief include but are not limited to:-
– death of a loved one
– death of a pet
– divorce and/or seperation
– miscarriage, baby loss, abortion
– loss of employment
– loss of cultural identity
– any other loss
If we have experienced a ‘non traditional’ loss we may find that those around are less understanding of our grief, or that support is not at hand. If we have moved countries, transitioned from one role to another, retired, left a role we used to play but are now no longer needed to, this can all result in grief.
So what can we do?
Naming it for ourselves (‘I am grieving this loss’), expressing it, journalling about it, making up a story to express it, drawing about it, being immensely kind with ourselves, making space for emotions to come up, working with a therapist can all be powerful ways to support ourselves through this experience.

Here are some stories of grief.

Here are some great resources about grief and support that bereaved people may appreciate.

Below are some organisations that may offer support groups, training and reading materials.

More information:

The NALAG Centre for Loss and Grief 

More about this organisation: “The NALAG Centre for Loss and Grief is a not for profit organisation with Centres and Branches in Dubbo (Head Office), Mudgee, Mid North Coast, Bellingen/Nambucca Shires and Sydney (Telephone). At the NALAG Centre for Loss and Grief we provide FREE loss and grief support to those who are grieving.

The NALAG Centre provides quality professional education and training in the area of loss, grief and bereavement. Throughout the year, we schedule workshops and we are also available to conduct customised training upon request.

To promote awareness of loss and grief in the community, NALAG conducts events such as Grief Awareness Month, The Walk towards Hope for Suicide Prevention and the Remembering the Babies Ceremony. Our various Centres and Branches also hold community awareness events and education sessions.”

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

More about this organisation: “The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, as the largest provider of grief and bereavement education in Australia, works to build the capacity of individuals, organisations and communities in order to enhance wellbeing following adverse life events. The Centre is funded by the Victorian Government Department of Health as the statewide specialist bereavement service.”

Compassionate Friends Victoria

More about this organisation: “At The Compassionate Friends Victoria you will find the special understanding of those who have “been there”. There is no pressure to talk or not talk, cry or not cry, just a chance to be yourself, to have time-out. We offer a safe haven, a listening and understanding ear, a place where you can let down the mask, and if you wish, talk about your son or daughter, brother or sister who has died. We don’t promise a miracle cure, just comfort and the consolation and hope that broken threads can be picked up again.For more information and 24 hour support: Phone (03) 9888 4944, Country Victoria freecall 1800 641 091″

Source of the quote: here.

Mental health moments

The problem with our critical inner voice is that it’s very easy to believe it.

At the time, when it’s loud and convincing it’s easy to believe.

Mine sometimes says things like this:

– you are so fat, all those wellness people are judging you

– you have nothing interesting to say, and you’re awkward, and no one likes you

– you’re so weird and not saying enough. They can all tell. They think you’re stupid

Seriously. These exact words. The last time they flared up I was at a networking event. It started out well, I was feeling positive and a bit apprehensive. I started ok, I did, but then I fell out of a conversation and things got self conscious and weird.

(This is despite being aware of it, despite years of therapy, despite being trained in counselling.)

Once that narrative starts up nice and loud I tend to get swept up in it. After all if those things are true, I should probably just slink off home – right? I should probably never go out. I should probably not try talking to anyone because they won’t enjoy my weirdness rubbing off on them.

I left in a bit of a funk – here I was fat, weird, awkward and everyone knew it.

Later, when the mood sweeps by, the clouds shift, a blue sky emerges, I feel fine. I feel calm and OK with myself and think I’m no more awkward or weird than anyone else. I resume normal programming. I enjoy socialising and even meeting new people. I become the person who helps other people not feel awkward in groups by talking with them, or introducing and connecting people.

So these experiences, and the voice in my head that convinces me I’m not worthy, actually helps me be finely attuned to other people and social dynamics. It helps me know fully in my body what uncomfortable feels like and to absolutely want to help make situations like this more caring and accessible to others.

These experiences also mean that I understand clients who struggle with anxiety, and strive to create a safe space in my one on one work and in groups where clients can be honest about our inner voice and how unhelpful it can be sometimes. Because this inner voice, this loop / mindset/ inner critic is an issue for most people. Not just people seeking help through therapy, but most people who are going about their lives are held back at some time due to doubts and fears that often express themselves as negative self-talk.

It comes up in art therapy sessions, it comes up in coaching, and so it should; because our inner scripts are often our invisible limits – they can shape what we will and won’t try, they tell us strong stories about what we deserve or what it is possible to experience in life.

How about you? Do you have any bitter, hurtful or challenging narratives that pop up when you are stressed or feeling low? Have you worked to replace them with kinder narratives about yourself? Do they give you insight or empathy you can take back into the world? Have you ever worked to change one and replace it with something more useful?

Feeling the feels – tired

Energy levels and what to do with them have been a big theme for my personal growth the past few years. (Oh hang on – is ‘personal growth’ a bit of a new agey cliché? By all means replace with ‘learning/ musing/ reflections/ new habits’ or whatever works).

What to do when I feel dead tired like a lump and have no oomph or get up and go whatsoever.

How to use energy when I have it.

What deflates me.

When I need to rest.

When I am tired in the mind versus tired in the body versus tired from a sugar slump versus tired from not enough sleep. When I feel icky from having absorbed complex emotional stuff that I need time to process. When I feel tired because actually I’m sad. When I feel sad because actually I’m tired.

Getting much better acquainted with what tired is.

I am finding my 100 words for tired like the fabled innuit and snow.

And finding a way to make space for it, accept it and make room for it without fear or judgement or ‘should’. Without fighting it and ‘pushing on’ or ‘soldiering on’ or ‘just doing it’.

I am trying to feel the rhythms of my body much more keenly and create a life that adjusts to them, respects them and works around them – not forcing my body to stick to routine and expected outputs that my mind makes up.

Because who am I to know what important work my body might be doing while I am tired and rest? Which cells might be tinkered with and replaced, which emotions are being sifted through, which memories stored, which ideas are growing in the subterranean dark of my subconscious. I am moving to respect my body’s wisdom much more – even if the Goddess of Efficiency and Productivity is no longer receiving her sacrifice.

Even if my sense of self (attached to energy, creativity and outputs) has to subtly shift over and adjust sometimes to make room for tired, not-creating, listless or idle me.

I practice expanding to embrace both. I practice feeling peace with it all.

(A little rant) What about daily art?

What about daily art?

The music we sing to ourselves. The songs we could sing at our gatherings. The artworks we could make to mark transitions and stages in our own lives and those around us? What of the weaving of cloth, the designing of clothes, the making of our own furniture, the amusing of our children, the brightening of our surrounds? What about the expression of our own emotions and the celebration of our own delight?

Where is the daily art that is intrinsically connected to living? The daily expression and celebration that belongs to us all and is the birthright of humanity? Wait about our hands’ right to making and joy?

Have we been relegated to consumers only?
Has art been stolen away and put in glass cases only?
Are we only allowed to make art if we brand ourselves as artists and stand in the camp of an artist movement?
Must we pledge allegiance to a discipline, to a teacher, to a movement, to a theory?
Do we believe that only culture teaches us art, that we must be filled like obedient children with knowledge and technique ready to regurgitate it?
Why can’t we all make art, delight in art, celebrate with art as our voice?
Why can’t art be part of everyday not just for special times?

Why can’t we trust our own voices rather than wait to sing on a stage and be judged before we dare to sing?
Why can’t we sing for joy and the joy of those around us rather than being selected to be the special ones that sing for many?
Why can’t we all claim art?
Why can’t art be like eating or shitting or brushing our teeth? Something we all do and don’t have to make a full time career from? Something we don’t need to be selected as special to do? Something that we don’t wait around for others to deem us worthy enough to do it? How can we make art making and appreciating an integrated and part of the daily movement and rhythm of life? A basic function that keeps us healthy and sane and free of excrement?

How can art making become like speaking – something we do, we just do, to be heard, to hear ourselves to communicate. Whether we lisp or orate, whether we have one person who listens or thousands, whether we do it for the cat or to ourselves in the car – we can all speak, we all speak, we use words to help get the feelings out and chrystalize our thoughts and we don’t expect a medal or permission to do it. Why can’t singing, making music, making art be the same?

I do it. I do it for me. I do it for life. I do it for freedom, I do it for honesty, I do it for relief, I do it to find companionship. I do it for humour, I do it for beauty, I do it for anger, I do it to honour sadness. I do it because it comes from me and falls from my hands like leaves fall from an Autumn tree. I do it to be alive and connected to life and sometimes to be distanced from life far enough that I can see it more clearly.

Taking time out for creativity is a gift to ourselves

I am busy planning and preparing for my latest 6 week Women’s Wellbeing Groups here in Sydney. I love to run groups that go beyond a single workshop because it really feels like a journey – participants journey deeper into themselves, they journey into a shared space with trust and they journey in relation to their own creative expression: trusting that, enjoying that, seeking wisdom in that.

I think people are often surprised at just how connected they can become to their own art making and also each other within a few short hours each week.

I see this as a beautiful circle – when we make art we set down our defences and become a little bit more vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable around others opens us up for connection with others. As we begin to connect with others in a safe and respectful setting we feel less alone and more comfortable expressing our feelings and experiences. As we feel more comfortable expressing our feelings and experiences we are willing to go deeper into the art making as a tool for expression and making meaning. And so it goes, deepening connection with our art making and with each other.

Safety is paramount for art therapy – not in terms of physical safety (although of course we offer that!) but emotional, interpersonal, psychological safety. To create a safe feeling space we need to offer some stability, some predictability and structure. Making sure we have clear ground rules, that we have some consistency of process, that people feel welcomed and seen, accepted without judgement is a big part of laying the foundations for the work we do.

People often find that in a well facilitated group they feel safer to try art making than they do at home. Less distractions likely plays a part in this, but it’s something more than that. It’s the safety of exploring new materials when we have a trusted guide. It’s the feeling of companionship when others are trying new things as well, working alongside us. It’s the guilt-free dedication of time (“I have to go…after all, I’ve committed to it” you might tell yourself).

It’s a gift to ourselves, to make time for creativity.

We give ourselves permission to emerge refreshed, challenged, changed.

We give ourselves the chance to experience whimsy, joy, surprise.

We give ourselves trust, that we can handle an unfamiliar situation, and hope, that we will benefit from it.

When we do this in group we also give ourselves companionship, honouring and connection.

And as women, to give to ourselves this time, for no other reason than the fact that we would like to experience it, is a wonderful, wild, investment in self care and kindness to our creative selves.


Interested in joining us?

Join us to relax, restore and reflect – take some time for your wellbeing. This 6 week women’s group meets weekly in face to face mode in Sydney and is DELICIOUS!

It has been described as like attending a mini retreat every week.

If ‘art’, ‘art therapy or even ‘creativity’ are words you have mixed feelings about – don’t worry, you are still welcome here:
– all processes are simple and suitable for beginners
– all art materials are provided
– the space is calm and beautiful, the discussion is frank and deep
– I will explain and demonstrate how to use any new materials that you might not be familiar with
– unlike an art class the focus is not on ‘pretty’ outcomes, but on raw, authentic expression – whatever you do will be the right thing for the moment and there is no competition or need for comparisons

We have a Friday morning option and a Wednesday evening option – book into whichever suits your schedule best.

‘Finally found a space that made me feel like I was truly doing something for myself. The art therapy group with Jade was inspiring, creative, liberating and nourishing. It was wonderful to share feelings and experiences with other women through art, and I enjoyed experimenting with every technique we used week after week.’ – Valentina

Book or more info 

Navigating anxiety and the unspoken abyss

Some days I am a fizz of adrenaline and avoidance. I am like a bee buzzing around and doing everything but the things that need doing. You see, I suffer from anxiety. I can become anxious about public speaking, anxious about running workshops, travel or looming deadlines and anxious about social situations. Yup, all that.

It actually took me a long time to realise this elevated fear was not something everyone feels all the time and that it might be something I could do something about. In part because my feelings of anxiety lurk inside, and don’t always express themselves outwardly, it wasn’t something others could see or help me see in myself. I didn’t realise that 11 out of 10 nerves for some work tasks wasn’t something everyone has. It took a long time to realise that the mismatch between what I can do and what I believe I can do was so large, and that I was seeing a huge gaping abyss where others saw a jaunty bridge. ‘Competent but not confident’ someone once described it.

What a pain, right?

Who wants that?

Don’t we all want to be cool, calm and collected, slouching along our way like a yesteryear cowboy or lounging like a glamorous sequined screen siren – slick and relaxed, insouciant, luxuriating in life? Not a frizzy, buzzing, pained, hand wringing person.

So let me introduce you to my anxiety. My anxiety grows bigger and subterranean when the tasks I am facing appear too big for me (something ‘high stakes’ or new that I feel like I am not likely to do well at) or when they begin to be tinged with guilt. My anxiety has a habit of snowballing, especially when I feel like I’m letting other people down. A horrible cycle of fear – avoidance – guilt emerges when I start to feel I am letting someone down by not doing the task that needs doing (the task I am avoiding because I feel too scared to do it).

Left unchecked, anxiety leads me to avoidance, which leads me to guilt, which leads me to more anxiety. If I ignore it, and try to busy myself through it, I can get lost in the feelings of anxiety and my desperate wish to run fast enough that they can’t catch me.

So… what can we do to manage these feelings and function despite them? Can we learn to love our anxiety or quotient it or to work with it?

For me, one of the simplest things that I find works is twofold – naming and nurturing.

By naming I mean acknowledging to myself that I am feeling anxious, but beyond that, actually speaking the fears to someone else; a trusted friend, a therapist, mentor or coach. The more anxious I become, the less likely it is I have spoken with someone about the concern. Sometimes when we feel ‘silly’ for being worried about something that we perceive as trivial or not worthy of fear we censor ourselves and find the fears going unspoken. They persist, but forced underground they grow unchecked and can drive our behaviours in ways we don’t even understand. When I name it, and speak it out I often hear myself explaining it in ways that reveal to me why the fear is justified, normal, to be expected. I validate my own feelings by acknowledging them, and by hearing the other person accept them at face value with curiosity and empathy.

By nurturing I mean flooding myself with alternate messages that honour my feelings and bolster my mood. I tell myself things that make me feel safe and loved. I try to follow these up with nurturing actions of preparation and support for the task. My experience of anxiety is silent – just a silent wide eyed, unsupported and terrified feeling. On the other hand my experience of nurturing self talk is that I unclench, I breathe, I relax. My nurturing self talk might be acknowledging the situation (‘gosh, no wonder you’re scared, it’s a new thing you’re doing’, ‘wow, yes, this is a big week, take care of yourself’), reducing the perceived risk (‘oh well, so long as you go and give it a try and learn something it will all have been worthwhile’), and generally reminding myself that I am loved no matter the outcome, that I can live with the outcome (‘I forgive you for being flawed, and for procrastinating, and for being scared, I love and forgive you even if you are late, or that task is overdue, or you are avoiding things’). As I say it I realise it is true, and my focus enlarges from beyond the anxious core, teetering on the abyss, to a more expansive landscape with solid ground under my feet.

There can even be protective wisdom in our anxiety – a reminder to attend to our needs, or be wary of situations that have been uncomfortable in the past. In my experience though, anxiety is like a dog barking in the night at an unfamiliar noise, our self caring and nurturing aspects are like the adult who gets up to check what the noise is all about and decides what to do with it. Anxiety is loud information, but it can’t always tell the postman from the burglar.

As an art therapist, this is ongoing work I need to do for myself, for my own self-care, and to create a flourishing base from which to work with others. Anxiety is a very familiar way of being for me, and while I have much longer periods now when it lies dormant, when it reappears I have to work through it anew each time, using tools I continue to practice. It also means my experience and understanding of anxiety is fresh and 3 dimensional – not just a word and theory I have studied but a flesh and bones experience. The gift of this in my work is that I understand how scary it can be to come to a group for example, or how unsettling the first meeting with a new therapist can be for one on one sessions. I also understand how there can be ‘good weeks’ and ‘bad weeks’ that seem to appear like the weather, or periods when we are more unsettled and prone to reacting in an anxious way. I strive to make the therapeutic process accessible and gentle, so that clients feel safe and can relax enough to share something of themselves in an authentic way.

In art therapy we talk about developing the witness, the inner voice of the witness who can observe what we are doing with kind impartiality, right alongside that part of us that feels deeply. We also work with clients to develop new thinking cycles that are affirming rather than negating. Importantly, in transpersonal art therapy, we make space for the feelings to be heard, and for the client to be lovingly accepted exactly as they are, with anxious feelings and self judgement and all. We help create a more nurturing inner voice by providing space for them to get beyond the daily chatter and into a place of contemplation and reflection. We model a stable and accepting self, we also empower the client to find this in themselves.



For immediate help for anxiety or depression if you are in Australia you can contact Beyond Blue or Lifeline day or night. ReachOut is also a great resource for young people on a variety of mental health and life challenges, with resources about bullying, friendships, relationships and issues like anxiety. This helpful information sheet describes a range of anxiety disorders. In Victoria there is also the Anxiety Recovery Centre that runs specialised groups on different types of anxiety. It may also be useful to speak with your Doctor if you have concerns about your health or mental health.



I currently have some spaces becoming available for one on one coaching and art therapy clients.

  • In coaching I support you to work towards your goals, making changes that you want to make in your life.  In coaching we approach the practicalities of getting things done – with clever tricks to get around anxiety and lots of support and encouragement (aka a personal cheer squad) so you feel less afraid to tackle the difficult tasks. See here for more information.
  • In art therapy I help you process and express feelings in ways that let you see yourself and your situation in new ways. We make room for the feeling dimensions of life and explore your inner world using symbols and metaphor and creative expression. We can do art therapy face to face if you are in Sydney, or by distance if you are elsewhere around the world. See here for more information and contact me here to get in touch.

An Art Therapy Career in Trauma Informed Care

I took my first intro to Art Therapy Class and it was like such a great fit and kind of like a calling.

This week  (March 13-19) is Creative Arts Therapies Week. To celebrate here is an interview with Board Certified US based art therapist Gretchen Miller about her career to date, specialising particularly in the use of art therapy in trauma informed care for children and young people. You can also find out more about art therapy and creative arts therapies at the Art Therapy Alliance- www.arttherapyalliance.org.


Why did you first decide to become an art therapist?

As a child I was always involved in the arts. I did art classes at school, musically I played the violin, I did a lot of drama and plays. I was always involved in some kind of creative activity but I really enjoyed making visual art. In high school I started to become a lot more interested in psychopathology and mental illness – it really intrigued me. I knew I wanted to do something to help people.

Initially I thought I’d go the psychology route – I started off as an undergraduate psychology major and that was very research focused and I’m very bad at math’s and the statistics class was like ‘ugh, too much’ and it wasn’t as direct service as I wanted… I was fortunate enough that the college I was attending had an undergraduate Art therapy program so I switched my major. My mum had always been encouraging of me to try art therapy. I was a little intimidated by the art aspect, the studio work, but I went to some information sessions and it seemed like it was worth trying it out. Then I took my first intro to Art Therapy Class and it was like such a great fit and kind of like a calling. It really resonated with me. Big time. So, that’s what led me. And having that undergraduate before I did the training to become an art therapist really helped me to know that that was what I wanted to do.

And did you go straight from the undergraduate to the Masters Program?

No I did not, I searched a lot of programs when I was a senior in college and I was kind of all over the map in terms of where I would like to go. I took a year off and tried to really thoughtfully figure out where to study. It worked out that the first job that I got out of college – I couldn’t do art therapy with just my undergraduate degree in art therapy – but I wanted to use my art making in some way to be art as therapy. I ended up working in a residential treatment¹ organisation with youth, all boys, and the agency saw that I had a background in art therapy and was very interested in developing that more.

So I stayed local and studied here in Ohio because I could develop the program that I was already working on, and they were very helpful and supportive in my process as a new professional entering the field. I ended up staying in that particular organization for over 8 years – 1995 to around 2002. It was a good chunk of time of growing and learning.

It began as art as therapy and the program became more clinical, to meet treatment goals and objectives, as I developed in school and became more confident.

So 8 1/2 years in that role, what came next?

I did some residential treatment work with adolescent girls, that was also a great experience. From there I started to really become interested in learning more about trauma, because I felt that was lacking in the education and training I received at graduate school. I started to reflect on how trauma and loss had a really big impact on the lives of a lot of the teens I had worked with. I just wanted to understand that a bit more. I started working with an agency that was dedicated to domestic violence and bereavement with adolescents, and began to undertake training at the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC). At the time of my starting my training with TLC, I was working as an art therapist with two agencies: one that was dedicated to domestic violence and the other was a program for grieving children and adolescents. I stayed with that particular domestic violence agency for 10 years and still facilitate art therapy bereavement groups for teens when I am able to. A lot of the work I do now is from that trauma focused lens I learned from TLC.

And is that still a big part of your work now – working with teenagers and groups around trauma and loss?

A big part of my work now is working with teens. Group work is a huge piece of what I do. I love groups. It wasn’t something I started out loving, like back in the beginning. I feel like while I do some individual, its predominantly group based. I also do some group work with adults around homelessness or are survivors of human trafficking, or vulnerable and at risk youth. But primarily have always worked with youth in some kind of capacity.

Which is interesting because some people might be a bit scared of working with adolescents.

Yes my undergraduate self and what I thought I would end up doing – I kind of had a vision of working in hospitals or psychiatric.. or maybe in hospices on death and dying, I thought maybe I would end up doing something on that. It’s interesting that I ended up at that organization for my first job, which was really just to get experience, I never thought I would end up there as long as I was or that I would end up enjoying it as much as I did. You just never know…



I really enjoy being able to offer art making and the creative process to help people. Turning them on to the possibilities that their art can help them feel better.

So you’ve worked at a lot of different agencies, and you still do it, you speak passionately about it, so you must love it. What do you love most about your work?

I really enjoy being able to offer art making and the creative process to help people. Turning them on to the possibilities that their art can help them feel better. Back in early part of my career there was a strong focus on what was wrong with people and diagnosis, but my way of working has definitely shifted to be more strength based and using those strengths to help manage and cope with different emotions, feelings, experiences and trauma reactions. It’s a privilege to be able to help people learn more about that so they can keep on doing that as well…

Groups are definitely challenging with the different people and dynamics but it can be so empowering because they can see they are not alone and not the only one going through what they are going through – they support each other.

In working with people transitioning out of homelessness, just the gratitude and appreciation, and the growth is really inspiring. Taking the art and using it to develop themselves really more is really nice. When people really connect and you see how art therapy can be a safe place for people to really voice their feelings and experiences and thoughts.

You’re working with individuals and groups who’ve experienced trauma, I’m wondering what insights you’ve gained in your work and what kind of ideas you have for change in the bigger structures of society to support people in these situations.

I think about trauma informed care and how a lot of systems or organisations could definitely benefit from seeing services and navigating through the system in a much more trauma friendly way rather than people having to fit into what they already offer. Some adults who are working with multiple providers of community-based services, navigating their way around this system can be hard. Being more flexible and more tailored to the individual would be really beneficial.

I think self care is definitely such an important part of the work we do.

And what about the role of art therapy for the therapist, or of art and self care?

I’m not sure of you know the work of Laura van Dernoot Lipsky? She wrote the book ‘Trauma Stewardship’ – it’s all about self care for professionals who work in trauma. It’s a really good resource, and tips for what to look out for, and her experiences of being burnt out. I think self care is definitely such an important part of the work we do. Hearing everybody’s stories and not just hearing them but seeing them, and balancing that out. That’s why I have my own art making and balancing out what I do as an art therapist with other things I really enjoy doing as well.

Having rituals and things that you do can be helpful – embracing music or smells or visually, sound, nature – whatever works for you in creating that relaxing type space is really helpful. One of the things I’ve suggested in the past is having a comfort care box or bag that you can keep in your car or office space, or wherever you work as an art therapist, and be able to access that when you need it. Chill out and take a moment to decompress. Like I would have gel pens, collage items, glue stick, maybe something sweet like a little bit of chocolate, smells are really important like lavender or a peppermint oil roller that is super relaxing. Lotions, things that are really nurturing and make you feel good in that moment.

And does that inform how you structure your working week or mix of tasks? In terms of number of groups all in a row, or the mix of groups and teaching?

Yes when I started out I did a lot of full time roles, but the trauma work I’ve done part time and contract and I almost feel that doing it that way is a nice fit for me, because it does allow me to do other things. The heaviness and stress that this work can cause, it’s a nice kind of balance to not be doing that 40 hours a week, for your own mental health care. To mix it up with other things.

You mentioned Laura’s work on trauma, are there are other people who have really shaped your approach to the work over the years? I guess probably too many to even remember – but do any stand out? 

I’m really a big fan of Bruce Perry and his work with children and youth and that sensory-based approach. What I really admire about Dr Perry’s work is the simplicity, even though it’s based on complex research, he talks about simple concepts like relational enrichment and working in parallel. Working alongside and being present and being relational, and how we don’t always have that in our lives, especially with youth, that can make such a great difference. ‘The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog’ is a great book if people are interested in learning more about his work or trauma in general.

And so looking back over your career is there any advice or reflections you would share with any art therapists just starting out in terms of what has helped you in professional development?

I think building a support network, especially locally with people you can connect to, who are also maybe in the same physical area that you’re working in. In terms of doing contract work, and art therapy is still small and word of mouth with agencies, and people who are looking for art therapy, so it’s great to share information and support each other.

Art therapy can be really isolating because you are often the only art therapist in an agency or on a contract. You don’t always have people around who ‘get’ what you’re doing. Where I live near Cleveland there are a lot of art therapists, so there are a lot of opportunities to go to workshops and events, but not everybody has those opportunities to connect in that way. So connecting online is a great way to do that as well.

And going forward what’s on the cards for you? What’s next?

Well working with adolescents is really humbling, they really keep you on your toes – it’s always changing. You have to have that energy and be on you’re a game all the time. So I hope being able to keep that balance and not become disenchanted by the work. I hope to continue to take care of myself and the balance that provides. I can’t imagine not doing art therapy. But who knows what form it might take down the line. I think that the work I do with graduate students as an Adjunct is always inspiring because it’s the future of art therapy and their energy and ideas are always inspiring as well. I always enjoy doing that in the mix.

I would also really like to continue doing online collaboration around art making – it really energises and inspires me, so I’d like that in the future too.

I think art therapy is core to what I do. It has been great to be able to do art therapy all this time with all the different populations I have got to work with, and I hope that continues.

And lucky last question: when might you come to Australia? 

Oh yeah wow, I’d like to come – warmer weather!

I see a lot of energy and activity in Australia in art therapy, it seems like the community is really strong. I’m always really impressed with what I see, the sense of community and what I see going on. few years ago I co-organized a project called ‘Spaces and Places’ inviting art therapists from around the world to share pictures of the spaces that people work in and we got some great submissions from Australia. It’s very inspiring to see where people work.


¹ Children who were wards of the county through abandonment or childhood neglect, or from Foster Care or would go into the Foster care system after their stay at the agencies. They lived in the agency that I worked at.

GretchenPhotoAbout the interviewee: Gretchen M. Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP is a Cleveland based Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, TLC Advanced Certified Trauma Practitioner, and Adjunct Faculty for Ursuline College’s Counseling and Art Therapy Program. Her clinical work includes working with at-risk children, adolescents, and adults. Gretchen enjoys finding inspiration, creating positive energy, and discovering transformation by working in mixed media, collage, altered art, art journaling, as well as organizing art exchanges and creative collaborations. Her online art making community, 6 Degrees of Creativity unites concepts of social networking, connecting, collaboration, and creativity into an engaged global community of artists spreading creative goodness. She also serves as Community Organizer for the Art Therapy Alliance, a network dedicated to promoting art therapy, the work of art therapists, and build community through social media. You can learn more about Gretchen’s art, projects, and creative interests on her blog Creativity in Motion.

JadephotoAbout the interviewer: Jade Herriman, BSc, MSocSci, DipTAT is a Sydney-based transpersonal art therapist, Barbara Sher coach and facilitator. She works with clients to help bring more creativity into their lives, plan for their professional development, manage big life change and go after their dreams. She works with groups, individuals and online to deliver workshops and help support people work towards their dreams. She is pleased to be presenting a full program of art therapy, creativity and coaching workshops in 2016 including a series of Women’s Wellbeing groups and teaching art for self care at this year’s Art is You Mixed Media Road show in Sydney. She brings a playful, flexible and creative approach to serious issues, and draws on many years of experience working in organisations in project management, policy and research roles to bring practical solutions to her clients.

Just what the doctor ordered

Many people recognise that art making has therapeutic benefit, emotionally, socially and even physically.

So, imagine you are in the office of your GP, and rather than prescribing medication you are prescribed 8 weeks of art lessons. Sound like a wonderful but way-out idea from some utopian future we might all dream of? Not so! Seniors in some suburbs of NSW can now access this right now via their local doctor or allied health professional. I interviewed Michelle Heldon, Acting Manager of the NSW ‘Arts on Prescription’ Program to find out more about the goals of the program and where the idea came from.

Hi Michelle, could you tell us a bit about how this program cam into being? What was the idea behind setting it up? 

The program is called  ‘Arts on Prescription’. It links participatory art activities run by professional artists to the traditional medical model of health services. Its aim is to help people to improve their health and wellbeing in multiple ways through creative expression. Basically what happens is that a Doctor or health professional can prescribe someone participation in this arts program, similar to how they would prescribe medication.

Participants will be involved in a range of arts experiences including painting, textiles, sculpture, music and movement. A similar program exists in the UK, which inspired this project, but because HammondCare who initiated it here is focused on positive ageing and aged care, this project focuses specifically on engaging older people rather than the general community.

No Arts on Prescription program has been done yet in Australia, in fact nothing like this has been done anywhere in the sense of this being designed specifically for people over the age of 65.

And who would be referred to this program?

People who have unmet health needs, an overall sense of decline in wellbeing, maybe they are socially isolated, experience depression or have decreased mobility. The referrer thinks that this person’s quality of life would benefit from participating in some art-form or another. For example say they have low self esteem but they light up when they talk about photography, this is potentially something this person could pursue to find that lost side of themselves. A person can also refer themselves if they feel they could benefit and approach the Arts on Prescription team who will link them with a referrer.

It has been promoted through aged care networks as well as through councils. Our primary focus is on people who are still living out in the community rather than in nursing homes, but it is open to people in residential care too if they are still relatively independent.

Image: HammondCare. The workshops span different materials including painting, movement and clay

How does this differ from the various existing community activities, including arts, that might already be offered by say, a local council or community centre? 

The thing that makes this program unique and appropriate for older people is that people have to be referred. In that way it’s validating that art can help on a medical level not just as a hobby. To have someone trusted like a GP or health professional let them know that ‘this is probably something you have never thought of before but if you go and do some painting it might help ease feelings of depression or anxiety’.

The form is just like a referral form to go see a specialist, but in this case it’s for going to see an artist. Instead of filling out a form for anti-depressants, they are filling out a form that is for 8 weeks of dancing or 8 weeks of painting.

Its encouraging people to ‘give it a go’. They program is fully funded so they don’t have to pay anything. This is about reaching new people and showing that there are all sorts of ways to improve our health where we personally play a part in our own healing.

Who else is involved in delivering the program?

The project will be undertaken in two locations: HammondCare’s Hammondville and North Turramurra sites. HammondCare hosts the program but it is also being run in partnership with the University of New South Wales (the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, and UNSW Art+Design) Also the project has the support of the South Western Sydney Medicare Local.

The artists are key to the program. All the artists have experience working with groups and working with people with specific needs. Some of them are also trained in therapy but we employed them as artists based on their own art practice – how they experience art for themselves and how they would like to share that. We also chose people who were interested in working with an older population.

For me having worked in Hammond Care for a number of years, I’m really aware that you have to have a strong commitment to empowering the people in your groups. We did a lot of training for the participating artists on how to involve someone, how to allow people to participate, to create space for them to engage and feel comfortable to express themselves.

We also have care workers from the health industry who can assist the artist in each session – they provide help for the participants for personal care or with mobility etc.

We only take 6 people in each group, its quite intimate but still creates a feeling of social interaction and connection. It’s a great way to bring people together and create a new network in people’s lives.

Image: HammonCare. Participants connect with their creative selves as they learn new skills and build confidence.

And what do you think the benefits might be?

I spoke with someone last week who was in his 80’s and he talked about his love of ceramics. In his 20’s he was taken to a gallery and because he knew the man organising the exhibition, he was able to touch some of the pieces. He told me about running his hands along the inside of a 200 year old Chinese pot, and explained emotionally that ‘that’s one of my happiest memories in my life’.

Wow, I got goosebumps as you told me that…

Exactly, and to have a way to reconnect with these memories through participating in art in your 80’s is such a wonderful thing! Activity that can enhance overall wellness in number of different ways. So that story gave us insight into the kind of program that he could get involved with, and he can reconnect with something that he really loves, but might never have had the opportunity to try as a younger person. This gentleman has recently started a Clay work program with Artist My Le Thi and is creating beautiful artworks and sharing stories with his group.

I’ve worked with older people for over 10 years and one thing I’ve noticed, is that this generation is difference in terms of accessing healthcare or asking for help. A lot of older people have the mentality of ‘you put your head down and keep on going’, a lot of them think ‘you don’t make a fuss’. So they are not always as willing to ask around for health information, or look into other types of therapies, and the GP themselves becomes a core source of guidance. As well, a lot of them have not been initiated into their new phase of life, they may have some unfulfilled hopes and dreams, particularly people who might be experiencing anxiety, depression and a loss of sense of self.

Research from the UK suggests that it reduces visits to the doctors when people go and do participatory art. Its not just a mental health aspect that these types of programs address but also the physical side – regaining mobility and flexibility is really key. We also plan to do physical research measures e.g. activity level monitoring, grip strength as well as wellness interview about mood, self esteem etc. We hope that the evaluation will show some solid results and programs like this can receive ongoing funding and the potential to roll it out in a range of organisations. As it’s so new we are learning and discovering along the way. We will get as much feedback as possible from the participants and artists to continually be improving and creating the program.

Image: HammondCare. Participants express themselves through colour and form.

 To sum up, what drew you to work on this program, why do you think it’s special?

Something like this provides insight for medical professionals to look at things in a different way – this project is a way to help validate all services that have a creative element in them. It’s bigger than this project for me, it’s about a wider shift in thinking, to see health differently, empowering people to take a part in their own healing. There is still a general idea that you go to the doctor and that they are going to fix you, instead of you going to the doctor expecting the doctor to support you to make changes. A project like this really illustrates this different shift in approach.

There are a lot of things out there that are happening and that are great but they are not always being evaluated and so can get swept under the rug or not validated.

It’s a way of sharing with the wider world ways of thinking about art and ways of thinking about health. Art as therapy still often gets put in another realm beyond standard medicine – this is a way to bring the realms to together and to identify that connection.

What is personally exciting for you about being involved in this program?

I feel like I kind of fell into this – everything in my life led me up to working on something like this. I feel like things have merged together. I’ve always loved art since I was a little girl, I studied art, my grandma had dementia that led me into aged care, my grandfather is a wonderful poet and I work at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I started doing aged care when I was in art school not knowing back that that I would link the two. I went on to study art therapy, which was so important for me but being involved in something like this is a merging of all these different things in my life.

I guess my reflection is that there are many many different paths and they don’t all look the same. I am grateful to HammondCare and the many people that have touched me with their stories. Getting involved in this work has really affirmed for me that I didn’t have to be defined by one particular aspect, me being an Artist, an Art Therapist, an educator, a carer. I could just be myself and authentically share with the people around me.

Sometimes I feel controlled by the labels, but I believe that there are always opportunities for new things, for expanding quality of life and to not be limited into being one particular way. And that’s what I think this program is all about and what I hope the people being referred and getting involved have the opportunity to experience as well.


About the Program

To get more information about the Arts on Prescription program or to download a referral form go to: http://www.hammond.com.au/services/positive-ageing or call the Centre for Positive Ageing + Care Ph: 02 8788 3900.Michelle can be contacted at: mheldon@hammond.com.au

To see some current programs in action check out the Arts in Ageing Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/artsinageing/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel


About the interviewee

Michelle Heldon is a visual artist based in Sydney who has been working in aged care for over 10 years. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art with Honours from the National Art School and has exhibited overseas and in Australia. Michelle currently works as an Artist Educator in the National Centre for Creative Learning and is the Coordinator of the new Artful: Art & Dementia program at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Michelle has also studied Transpersonal Art Therapy and co-ordinated and curated the HammondCare SES Living Memories Art Exhibition in 2014 and recently began the role of Project Manager and Artist for the Arts on Prescription program.

About the interviewer

JadephotoJade Herriman (Dip TAT, BSc and MSocSci) is a transpersonal art therapist and coach. She draws on over 15 years experience working in government and higher education as a sustainability professional, researcher and facilitator. Jade integrates the principles of client centered counseling and group facilitation with art therapy processes and her own experience of creative practice. Jade holds a variety of events within organisations or for the general public and offers one on one art therapy or coaching, either face to face or remotely. Read more here.