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Creating to heal

Concordians are harnessing the power of the arts to help people cope with loss
October 24, 2022
By Ian Harrison, BComm 01, with files from Richard Burnett, BA 88

When 176 people were killed after a passenger airliner was shot down near Tehran in January 2020, the Concordia community was devastated.

Two of the passengers — Siavash Ghafouri-Azar, MASc 19, and Sara Mamani, MASc 18 — were recent graduates who had just wed in Iran.

Galvanized by a $50,000 donation from Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen Now co-chair Gina (Parvaneh Baktash) Cody, MEng 81, PhD 89, the university swiftly mobilized to establish a memorial fund for Iranian students, who comprise more than nine per cent of Concordia’s international-student population.

What the university did next for its bereaved may have been just as impactful.

It started with a graduate student in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies who created the Persian Art Hive on Sir George Williams Campus. Financed with support from the J.A. De Sève Foundation, the art hive became a safe space for the grief-stricken to quietly gather, make art and process their trauma without fear of judgment.

The power of creative expression

The notion that creative expression can be a vehicle for therapy has long had a home at Concordia, even before the institution became the only university in Canada to offer graduate training programs in art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy and play therapy within a creative arts therapies department.

Guylaine has short hair and glasses and wears a black sweater and red earrings Guylaine Vaillancourt: “The arts can be transformative in working through the pain.”

In this sense, Concordia has been ahead of the curve. And yet, thanks in part to advances made by its researchers, students and alumni, a more mainstream consensus has started to emerge about the potential for the arts and creative arts therapies to serve as resources for individuals who are experiencing life challenges.

Grief is undoubtedly among them. “It’s a natural process that we all go through at some point in our lives,” says Guylaine Vaillancourt, a pioneering music therapist who chairs the Department of Creative Arts Therapies. “And the arts can be transformative in working through the pain.”

Laurel Young, another music therapy professor at Concordia, has witnessed this first-hand in her more than 27 years of clinical and research experience.

“I have worked with mothers whose grief over the loss of a child was unresolved and impacting their lives years later,” she says. “For some, participating in an individualized songwriting process gave them an opportunity to ‘speak’ to their child and express things previously left unsaid. The song became tangible evidence that acknowledged and honoured their child’s existence in the world, and served as a vehicle for self-forgiveness.

“Through creative arts therapies, people can find their own ways of working through and living with grief that is constructive and personally meaningful for them. In music therapy, we work with bereaved individuals to find the sounds and music experiences to express what words alone cannot say.”

A natural part of life

The event in Iran that compelled Hanieh Tohidi, MA 20, to launch a creative safe-space was not the first tragedy to prompt a supportive, arts-oriented response at Concordia.

After a student in the Department of Art Education passed away on campus in 2019, Rebecca Duclos, the dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the time, led efforts to provide resources for students, faculty and staff, as well as the student’s family.

Those resources included art hives. Two four-hour sessions were hosted at Sir George for weeks, and gave a wide range of Concordia community members the opportunity to take comfort and commune with others in grief. As Duclos told the Montreal Gazette, the tragedy “fast-tracked a lot of training that the whole university was ready to engage in.”

Added Yehudit Silverman, a professor emeritus in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies: “Meaning-making is the only thing that allows for healing. And that meaning-making doesn’t [necessarily] mean we figure out why [death happens].”

At a March workshop at Concordia entitled “Grieving, Mourning, Memory: A Conversation,” Duclos, whose scholarly work on death is paired with her work as a death doula for palliative-care patients, said: “Dying is the one thing that we will all do. [It is important that] we demystify it and see it as a natural part of life.”

The expressive arts can be a powerful salve or resource in this regard.

Maria Riccardi, BFA 95, a lecturer at Concordia with graduate degrees in art therapy and educational technology, has implemented a range of art-based programs, most notably for adolescents and adults alienated because of mental or physical illness, immigration status or poverty.

In a paper published online by the Canadian Art Therapy Association in 2020, Riccardi and two other researchers demonstrated how the expressive arts can be effective in end-of-life care for patients and loved ones faced with loss.

“The creative process allows the participants to reflect on past events, to be aware of the present mood, and then discuss their concerns about life and death issues,” Riccardi and her co-authors wrote. “Through the series of [expressive arts] activities, participants develop a deeper understanding of their body, mind and spirit in the face of death, and strengthen their connection with their families and other beings.”

Although there is a growing body of research on the use of the arts in grief work, the paper noted that more work is needed.

‘Sometimes we cannot find the words’

Laurel has short hair is wearing a red sweater over a black t-shirt Laurel Young: “In music therapy, we work with bereaved individuals to find the sounds and music experiences to express what words alone cannot say.”

That may soon change, thanks in no small part to a surfeit of evidence — both anecdotal and empirical — uncovered throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

As the pandemic worsened in the United States in 2020, the American Art Therapy Association conducted a comprehensive online survey. Respondents cited a need for more art therapy resources and saw them as particularly effective as a way to cope with isolation, rapid changes in circumstance, trauma and grief.

More and more evidence suggests that children in grief — perhaps unable to communicate verbally — may stand to benefit most from forms of creative arts therapies.

“Kids naturally gravitate to art,” noted Sarah Tevyaw, BFA 09, MA 11, a Concordia-educated art therapist who has worked at a palliative care residence for the last decade, in a recent interview about her work with Palliative Care McGill. “It is such a natural way to express what is going on. I always remind [parents] that the child is not going to be forced to do the art, and they are not going to be forced to talk.

“But often how they feel comes out through the process of making the art. Things come up and we have the opportunity to work through it.” These therapies are “an important way for people to make meaning of their experience,” Tevyaw added.

“For both people living with a terminal illness and for those who are bereaved, sometimes we are not ready to talk about it, and sometimes we cannot find the words to express what is going on. Art is a visual language. It doesn’t need to be interpreted. Art gives people the opportunity to express anything that is going on through an image.”

Katherine has brown curly hair and wears a white shirt and a grey sweater Katherine Valkanas: “One of the wonderful aspects of art therapy is that it can be person-centred to meet the needs of clients.” | Photo: Van Wickiam

Katherine Valkanas, MA 18, a bereavement coordinator and art therapist at the community-based Doane House Hospice in Newmarket, Ontario, works with individuals who are processing grief and bereavement, and supports individuals with terminal illness as well as their caregivers.

“One of the wonderful aspects of art therapy is that it can be person-centred to meet the needs of clients,” she says. “Together we’re creating something to commemorate a relationship in response to memories they’ve made with a loved one, and to explore various feelings that are present in their grief experience.

“The beautiful part about art-making and art therapy is that it allows for different layers of experience to naturally unfold and be expressed.”

The importance of donor support

Concordia’s Heather McLaughlin, MA 04, knows this all too well.

The art therapy option coordinator and director of the university’s art therapy graduate program oversees the new Concordia Arts in Health Centre (CAiHC), whose mission is to provide accessible creative arts therapies services to underserved communities. Interns in drama, art, music and art therapy are supervised by professionals who are experts in their field, and bring innovative and best-practice approaches to meet the varied needs of diverse people in the greater Montreal area and beyond.

“Bolstered by donor support, we’ve spent a year piloting projects in the community,” McLaughlin says. “And we have now just started offering services at our on-site clinic, as well as on location in several organizations.”

The CAiHC’s list of partners in the delivery of these services includes Montreal’s Refugee Centre, a nonprofit that helps recent immigrants and refugees begin anew in the city. Many have fled horrific circumstances that are difficult to articulate in any language.

“Refugees face multifaceted obstacles and barriers throughout their forced migration journey,” says Jude Ibrahim, BFA 20, MA 22, who led the pilot project at the Refugee Centre as part of her graduate-degree practicum. “The accumulation of these difficult experiences poses a tremendous strain on their mental health and well-being.”

Heather has shoulder-length dark brown hair and wears a red sweater over a white shirt Heather McLaughlin: “We’re proud of the work we and our graduates are doing not just here, but across North America and abroad.” | Photo: Karine Kalfon

The efforts of McLaughlin, Young, Vaillancourt and others at the Department of Creative Arts Therapies to build on Concordia’s strengths in the discipline have drawn the attention of donors and some major philanthropists. The Raschkowan Family Foundation, for example, has provided support for Ibrahim’s work at the Refugee Centre, as well as a number of other pilot projects.

Sarah Ivory, MFA 95, a Montreal-based community fundraiser, developed an interest in creative arts therapies through her work at the Douglas Mental Health Institute, both as a program facilitator and as a past member of the foundation’s board. Witnessing first-hand how creative arts therapies could help mitigate suffering, Ivory — who also formerly served on the advisory board of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts — was inspired to make a gift to the university.

“There is a growing body of scientific research on creative arts therapies, and Concordia is doing great work that I believe we must support,” she says.

Last May, the university celebrated a $1-million gift from the family foundation led by Concordia alumna Sandra Chartrand, BA 85, and her husband, Alain Bouchard, co-founder and chairman of Alimentation Couche-Tard, to the CAiHC and the Centre for the Arts in Human Development, a clinical and research development hub established in 1996 for graduate students in the department. That gift helped secure $500,000 of additional support from Fondation Famille Mongeau, a charity co-managed by Claude Mongeau, the former CEO of Canadian National Railway.

The two Montreal foundations were moved by Concordia’s progressive approach to creative arts-based therapy research and education and the steps the university has taken to provide services to the broader community from the Centre for the Arts in Human Development on Loyola Campus and a new state-of-the-art facility on Sir George Williams Campus.

“We’re proud of the work we and our graduates are doing not just here, but across North America and abroad,” says McLaughlin.

The power of artistic expression is not to be underestimated, adds Vaillancourt.

“Everyone’s healing journey is unique. But we know that the arts have been used by humans as a therapeutic form of expression for thousands of years. When words fail us, the arts really can see us through difficult times.”

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