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October 24, 2002 Creative arts therapies become mainstream treatments



by Hypatia Francis

A group of women sat in a circle, ready to find out how they could use music and sound to help themselves. The music ranged from Mozart to a rousing Souza march, from harp music to the plangent chords of traditional Indian music. All of the pieces inspired strong emotion.

Over the course of the evening, the women talked about how each piece made them feel. They went through several exercises in sound, practicing deep breathing and humming.

This workshop, held at Gilda’s Club for people living with cancer, was led by Shelley Snow, a researcher and consultant with the Centre for the Arts in Human Development at Concordia.

Snow has been a music therapist for nearly 18 years. She says that sound can be very powerful, and cites a study in which therapeutic drumming was found to enhance the activity of cancer-killing cells. “There is no better way to boost your immune system than listening to the music you love,” she said.

In a few years, students in the creative arts therapies program will be able to follow in her footsteps. Together with UQAM, which offers a bachelor’s degree in music therapy, the MA program is developing a music therapy option to complement the art therapy and drama therapy programs it already offers.

While it will be some time before students will be able to register for it, the development of a music therapy option is just one sign of how far the program has come.

It began as a single introductory course offered in 1979. In 1982, the masters program in art therapy was established. Twenty years later, it is the only program in Canada to offer full professional creative arts therapies at the master’s level, and its reputation has attracted students from across the country.

Alice Madden is one such student. While studying for a bachelorÕs degree in fine arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, she became aware of art therapy and realized it was her calling. She took psychology electives at NSCAD and night courses at St. MaryÕs University to qualify for ConcordiaÕs program.

In addition to their course work, students in the program must acquire a minimum of 800 hoursÕ experience. They work in hospitals, rehabilitative centres, schools and community health care institutions, and they are encouraged to participate in arts therapy themselves.

Madden finds that the arts allow one to access what cannot be verbalized. “I get huge persona satisfaction knowing that IÕm helping somebody, and doing it in a way thatÕs fulfilling for me.” A fall 2002 graduate, she hopes to work with an adult psychiatric clientele, and she has already had a job offer.

Creative arts therapies are still not as widely known as the more traditional talk therapy; nor are they as well understood by the general public.

Josˇe Leclerc, graduate program director, says they are mistakenly seen as less reliable, a perception has to do with the place of the arts in society and with the fact that creative arts therapies still represent a fairly new approach to treatment.

However, this is changing. “There is an increasing openness to the arts,” Dr. Leclerc said. The program itself may have played a role, after 20 years of producing trained professionals, setting vocational standards and promoting the benefits of creative arts therapies.