Creative Insights: with Donna Betts

~Michelle Saleeba


This interview with Donna Betts, PhD, ATR-BC Clinical Research Advisor with the American Military's Healing Arts Network is jam packed with links to websites and books for you to explore creative healing further. We are also introduced to Donna's personal creative practice through the beautiful lace knitting images.

Of particular interest is the inspiring work Donna undertakes with Creative Forces® who provide support for American service personnel who have experienced traumatic brain injury and psychological injury as a consequence of service.

The video clip mid post demonstrates the work of the creative therapists, shares the stories of injured veterans and highlights the love and resilience of their families.



Michelle Saleeba: It has been said that creative work is fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing. Why do you think this is?


Donna Betts: Different theorists have attempted to address the enigma of creativity. In the history of humankind as we know it, people have always found ways to express themselves through various creative means. What is less understood is how creative potential is channelled, and why this is important. There may be a connection between long-term gains in executive functioning and the quality of creative output, yet to be explained by neuroscience research. What I do know is that the imperative to express ourselves is inborn – to create is as essential a human need as water, food, and sleep.


MS: If there is intrinsic therapeutic benefit to engaging in creative pursuits, how is art in therapy, or art psychotherapy, different and why is it beneficial?


DB: I recently reviewed a forthcoming book, The Creative Advantages of Schizophrenia: The Muse and the Mad Hatter, by Paul Kiritsis. He emphasizes the importance of understanding how creativity impacts the overall quality of life for people with mental illness and their activities of daily living. Indeed, this is a salient aspect of an art therapy session – what goes on in the brain and body while an individual is engaged in making art. What is unique about art therapy, in addition to the personal benefits of art-making, is the presence of the art therapist and his or her ability to both facilitate, and act as a witness to, an individual’s creative process. This witnessing of the process adds another, non-verbal dimension that involves interpersonal and relational dynamics – yielding a triangular system involving the individual, his or her artwork, and the art therapist. A lot of communication occurs without words. Clients often experience relief in artistically expressing themselves, and this catharsis can be enhanced when working with a credentialed art therapist to help the client come to deeper insight into their artwork.


MS: Why did you choose art therapy as a profession?


DB: I understood from an early age that art was a great way to express feelings. I recall making art as a teenager to express frustrations and strong emotions. The release of intense feelings through art, known as “catharsis,” was immensely helpful to me. I wanted to become a person who could help to facilitate this process for others. I didn’t even know what art therapy was when I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, in 1992. A couple of years later, I learned of art therapy and went back to complete prerequisite undergrad courses before applying for admission to graduate programs.


MS: Who do you work with?


DB: I have worked with a range of people of all ages with a range of challenges and abilities. One of my first jobs as an art therapist was with children and adolescents with multiple disabilities including autism, communication disorders, learning disabilities, and other challenges. I loved working with these kids, especially those who found a way to communicate through their artwork. I have worked with military service members and veterans, older adults, people with mental illness, and more. More recently I worked with adolescents and adults with eating disorders – a population with myriad challenges and complex emotional and physical problems. But time again, despite the difficulty in treating people with anorexia and bulimia, my clients would tell me that art therapy literally saved their life. It helped them to uncover pent-up or hidden emotions, work around their tendency to intellectualize, address significant histories of trauma and abuse, regain control over their own body, re-adjust to a healthier body image, and many more benefits.


MS: Would you tell us more about your work with American military personnel?


DB: Presently I’m the Clinical Research Advisor for Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and state and local arts agencies from across the country. Administrative support is provided by Americans for the Arts. Creative Forces seeks to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life of trauma-exposed military service members and veterans, as well as their families and caregivers, by increasing knowledge of and access to clinical creative arts therapies and community arts engagement. Since 2011, the military healing arts partnership has supported creative arts therapies for service members with traumatic brain injury and associated psychological health issues at two military medical facilities in the Washington, DC, area. In 2016, the initiative expanded to 10 additional sites nationwide and increased access to therapeutic arts activities in local communities for military members, veterans, and their families. This link explains more about the Clinical Therapy program featuring the 11 military bases where our creative arts therapists work in Behavioral Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) clinics. Creative Forces invests in capacity-building efforts, including the development of toolkits and training materials, as well as research on the impacts—psychological, neurological, physiological, and economic—of creative arts therapies as innovative treatment methods.


This video (from the Creative Forces website) is a must-see:



MS: Art therapy has a long history and has undergone considerable evolution and development. In your view how is the profession responding to our increased understanding of neuroscience?


DB: Art therapy scholars have been publishing on neuroscience and implications for art therapy theory and practice for quite some time. Most art therapists have an understanding of the neuromechanisms involved in the creative process – what happens in the brain when someone is making art, and working with their art therapist, and the implications for improvement/increased health and well being, how this impacts their ability to make functional gains. This is particularly true of the trauma literature, pertaining to our understanding of how memories are stored in the non-verbal part of the brain, and how that makes art therapy a uniquely effective treatment.


MS: Often therapists have a defining professional experience that enhances or solidifies the why of their practice. Have you had any formative experiences, or lessons that have impacted on you as an art therapist?


DB: I have many such experiences. Most of these occur when a client experiences an “a-ha” moment as a direct outcome of engaging in the creative process. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known for his concept of “flow” – when one is so deeply engaged in an experience that they lose themselves to it – and typically achieve a “peak experience” (coined by Abraham Maslow). Being witness to a client’s “flow” experience is a powerful experience, and a privilege.


On a different note, I recall a young adolescent client who came to see me for weeks and didn’t want to talk or make art. She was mandated to attend therapy but she wasn’t invested in it. Mental health professionals emphasize the importance of the therapeutic relationship – this was made particularly poignant in my work with this client. During our time together, I recall feeling somewhat frustrated that she didn’t want to talk or make art, but I immediately fell back on what I knew to be the power of the relationship – so, building trust, establishing safety, and other elements fundamental to success in therapy, became the most productive means for me to find a way to connect with her, and ultimately, for her to find her own way to trusting in herself and the power of art-making.


Renewal Shawl

MS: Do you feel there are perceived barriers to participation in creative activities generally, and art therapy specifically? How might these be over come?


DB: Oh yes, for some folks who have concerns about their perceived artistic skills, they may balk at the idea of making art. And some are uncomfortable with being observed during art-making by their art therapist. But of course we are trained to support clients no matter what level they are at, and whatever they are comfortable with, we work with them to address their treatment goals. Sometimes this includes increasing the level of trust, or self-esteem, and other factors that may impede progress. For adults in particular who may not have made any art since childhood, art therapists have approaches to helping encourage art-making that are more success-oriented and can help ease someone in to the process of art-making, so that they come to actually enjoy it.


MS: There is substantial research about the importance of social connectivity for health and wellbeing. Art therapy is often delivered as a group process. Does making art with others enhance social connection and a sense of belonging?


DB: Absolutely. Especially when working with client groups that share a common challenge or background, such as combat veterans with trauma. When in groups with others like them, the benefits are doubled – there’s an unspoken understanding that their peers in the group share a similar history, and that in and of itself is a powerful factor for enhancing the benefits of connectivity. The benefits are further enhanced through expert facilitation of group art therapy work by a registered art therapist.


Holbrook Shawl


MS: Part of the therapy process is helping clients realise the ways in which they are already resilient. How do you incorporate this process of assisting people to identify their existing strengths into your therapy practice?


DB: For this we turn to humanistic and positive psychology – approaches to therapy that are strengths-based and conducive to meeting clients where they are, while also helping them to identify their own capabilities and resiliencies. There are a number of ways to do this in art therapy, certain art-making interventions that are intended to pull for client strengths and help them come to understand their inner resiliency on their own (which has more impact than the therapist pointing that out to them).


MS: Most art therapists have their own art practice, which we don’t often hear about! Describe your art practice are there any consistent themes, metaphors or stories in your work?


DB: I do a lot of photography, and some drawing and watercolor painting. A common theme for me is landscapes, especially northern landscapes that remind me of my birthplace, Canada. But my most common artistic media is yarn – I do a lot of lace knitting. I mostly make shawls and scarves. I knit every day, I always have a project going. I find knitting to be both relaxing and rewarding – lace knitting requires concentration and skill that keeps my mind alert but also provides a relaxing outlet. And when a project is finished, I have a beautiful piece to wear that keeps me warm!


Cynara Shawl

MS: How might you encourage someone who is experiencing creative “stuckness”?


DB: For “stuckness,” I recommend success-oriented experiences. By this, I mean any activity that is really user-friendly, simple, and set up for success based on ease of use of materials, and type of materials. For example, throwing paint and seeing what emerges from it, or scribbling/doodling and seeing what emerges, or use of tissue paper to create a colourful collage – projects like these that don’t impose an aesthetic standard or expectation on the individual, but instead, invite freedom of expression without the burden of expectation. Granted, some folks are reluctant to even put that first mark on a page. For moments like that, the book “The Dot” is a must-read!


MS: Is there a book that has really influenced your development as an art therapist?


DB: That would definitely be Harriet Wadeson’s “Art Psychotherapy” I picked up a copy of this book in 1992 at a used bookstore in Toronto, and I could not put it down. She detailed her clinical experiences as an art therapist and its applications with different patients – individuals, couples, and families.


MS: Do you have any exciting news relating to your work that you’d like to share?


DB: I do! For the past few years, I’ve been working diligently with my friend and colleague Dr. Sarah Deaver on a book project, “Art Therapy Research: A Practical Guide” – and it has just been published!

Sarah and I are really excited about this book and its potential as a main textbook for graduate art therapy program research courses. Our aim for the book was to provide a comprehensive text for students and professors, as well as clinicians and prospective researchers, for the teaching and learning of art therapy research, while ensuring our content provides the most up-to-date and state-of-the-art theories and techniques for research pursuits. The book was a labor of love, and we are delighted with it. We hope our friends, colleagues, and art therapy students everywhere will find it to be an essential part of their learning about research!


#arttherapy #laceknitting #donnabetts #creativeforces #veterans #military #art #creativity #healing #mentalhealth

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