Art therapy is an incredibly powerful healing tool, according to Erica Sawyer.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic – when many have suffered social isolation and even emotional devastation from losing a loved one – it’s a tough tool to access for a myriad of reasons, according to Sawyer, a local registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor.
Art therapy is different from talk therapy; it focuses on expression and integrates traditional counseling techniques with the art-making process to help improve someone’s physical and emotional well-being.
It can be challenging to do that over a screen, especially when several of Sawyer’s clients are older adults, some of whom have dementia.
“It can be done via teletherapy if they have their art supplies and I have mine, but I haven’t had any clients during the pandemic who want to do that,” she said. She’s open to it but doesn’t believe it’s as effective because it’s harder to see people’s expressions.
“It depends on where they point their camera,” she said. “It’s doable but I’d say more challenging to get all the nonverbal cues as well.”
Although she hasn’t had any clients who want to do video art therapy, there’s been no shortage of people searching for therapy, in general, due to the anxiety and depression people are experiencing. A February story in the New York Times detailed the challenges of finding appointments nationwide.
“We do want to help so much, but the need is so great. It truly is,” Sawyer said. “It’s valid and real. It’s not something that can be sugar-coated right now. It’s hard. Your heart goes out, and you do want to help as many people as possible.”
That has caused burnout and a need for boundaries in therapists themselves, she said.
“It’s not because I don’t want to help or be there for this person,” Sawyer said. “But none of us is immune to challenges in our home life and work life. Many of us therapists are seeking our own therapy, too. It’s part of taking care of ourselves so we can be there for our clients.”
On top of that, Sawyer, 43, is navigating being a new parent in the pandemic – an experience with tremendous conflicting feelings.
“On one hand it’s sad and disappointing to not have this community come celebrate this new being that’s a part of their life,” Sawyer said, pausing to collect herself. “I’m tearing up as I say that. But on the other hand, it’s nice because it’s allowed us to gently ease into parenthood and have our own time getting to know our son and have this quality time with him.”
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Currently working part time, she has an office space in Salmon Creek but mostly works out of her home in Ridgefield.
The Columbian caught up with Sawyer to learn more.
What is your role right now?
I’m in private practice. Some art therapists are exclusively art therapists, but I don’t want to limit myself because I happen to also love so many different tools that can be used. Art therapists are trained in the same things that traditional psychotherapists are, as well. I’m very part time because I’m a new mom. Around four years ago, I started my private practice with the intention to give myself power over what clients I saw and how often. It was really taking a toll on me to have huge caseloads.
What has it been like juggling work and life with a new baby during the pandemic?
I feel like there are pros and cons to having a new baby during this time, because oh my gosh, it’s so tiring and all-consuming. I’m super introverted; I mean, I love my friends and family, but I also need a lot of alone time to recharge. So the pandemic has built in a socially acceptable excuse to not socialize as much. People have been considerate that way; they don’t want to expose a newborn unknowingly even with masks and social distancing. I’m glad he was born in October because we spent so much time indoors just learning how to be parents: the eat-sleep-change cycle, over and over. Things are feeling safer, and we’re getting outside almost daily with the sunshine. It’s been really wonderful.
How did the pandemic impact your job?
My routine was to have supplies out and accessible just in case, but when all this happened, I remember, there were all these questions: Are the masks effective? Which masks do we use? Does sanitizing work? I just decided not to put the supplies out. A lot of art therapists would put out supplies that were easily cleaned between clients, or they’d use single-use materials or have people bring their own. Then, as more information came out, for me, personally, I’ve been taking on fewer clients. That’s a combination for my own mental health and maternity leave. It’s only been since January that I ramped back up. I’ve had a lot of people reach out.
Do you plan to return to art therapy and doing things in person?
I feel like for me there’s always two sides to everything. I’m actually enjoying the balance of video and in-person. I enjoy in-person more for so many reasons – being in the room and in a sacred safe space, where we’re not worrying about distractions or connection to the internet. You have that energetic back and forth, and use materials and art making and the process. I think there’s something so powerful and meaningful about being physically present with a client. On the flip side, I found I really enjoy days doing teletherapy; I didn’t realize how much time (was spent commuting), even though my office is only 15 minutes away. I get there early to set it up, get out office supplies because I’m sharing the office – now it’s even more time because I’m sanitizing before and after. It’s just less work to get on the computer and have my session. I don’t have to drive and clean up.