Charleston Co. schools rolls out art therapy amid spike in mental health concerns

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) – The Charleston County School District is taking action to meet the mental health needs of its students after a report in December showed a disturbing increase in concerning behavior.

That report found suicide assessments in schools were up 45{5b4d37f3b561c14bd186647c61229400cd4722d6fb37730c64ddff077a6b66c6} across the district, while assessments of threats to others and to buildings were up over 50{5b4d37f3b561c14bd186647c61229400cd4722d6fb37730c64ddff077a6b66c6}.

Along with a wave of hiring’s aimed at getting more mental health professionals in the classroom, the district has also started a new program called art therapy. In partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina, the district is testing out one-hour, once a week art therapy classes at five schools.

One of those locations is North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary School.

“Art therapy is a little bit different from your typical art class because we are using the art as a medium to really talk through your feelings,” said principal Anne-Marie Murphy. “We brought it here to our school because we know as we come through this third year of a pandemic, that all of our students are dealing with moving forward in their education in different ways.”

Murphy says students are identified as potentially in need of additional support and their parents are asked if they would like to enroll in the program. Board Certified and Registered Art Therapist Laura Allen says they have noticed more students are showing signs of increased stress and anxiety since the pandemic began.

“Lots of our students are showing what we’re calling internalized anxieties,” Allen said. “They present pretty stable on the outside. They seem to be engaged in their academics and might have a smile on their face, but on the inside, they’re really struggling with anxiety and depression.”

Allen is part of the MUSC team going into schools and leading the art therapy sessions. Katie Sullivan is the manager of the MUSC Arts in Healing program overseeing art therapy. She is also an art therapist and says the sessions aren’t just an art class and what’s created by the students aren’t Rorschach tests for kids.

“I like to say that art therapy is all about the process of art making,” Sullivan said. “In art therapy it’s about coming up with a directive, having the client or a patient create art that is based in some kind of goal or theme. And then about half of the session is spent kind of processing the artwork that was made.”

“I would say an example of hopefully what a client maybe gained from a session in art therapy is maybe some greater insight into some of the challenges they were facing initially prior to the session,” Allen said.

The program is only possible because of a generous donation from a community member. There are three semesters currently planned that will reach 15 schools and around 300 students. Sullivan and Allen hope by starting the process they will generate enough support and research to grow the program into the future – something Murphy would also like to see.

“Right now, there is so much going on inside the media, really talking about the struggles that kids are having,” Murphy said. “Schools are responding and we’re starting in small ways, but I think it’s going to be able to get bigger.”

Murphy says the school currently has 18 students in the art therapy class at North Charleston Creative Arts.

Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.

Kenneth Proto

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