When the black dog bites

Art therapist Emma Finch shows off art which will be displayed in the exhibition. Photo Rebecca Johansen.
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Art therapist Emma Finch helps sufferers of mental illness heal through the power of art. Rebecca Johansen reports.

What would you do if your siblings annoyed you? You would most likely tell your parents. Emma Finch, however, drew funny portraits of her siblingshanging them on her front fence for everyone to see. From the age of five she knew how powerful art could be, especially when she embarrassed her brothers and sisters into changing their ways.

As soon as Emma could hold a pen, her parents taught her to draw. She grew up using art as a coping mechanism to deal with her own childhood trauma. As she got older she went to a hearing-impaired camp and realised art was a big part of many people’s lives. “It didn’t matter if you could hear or not, we all connected during the art activities and I thought, ‘yes this is what I want to do for a living’,” she says.

Emma turned her lived experience of depression and her love of art into a career. She went to London in her early 20s, and before she was due to head back to Australia she came across a magazine article about art therapy.  “Art therapy helps abuse victims,” it stated.

Not long after she became an art therapist, studying in England where it was more popular, because art therapy was not well known in Australia. Twenty-five years on that has changed. It’s become increasingly popular here in Australia.

There were 56 practicing art therapists across Melbourne in February 2018, according to an evidence review for the Institution for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research.

The Black Dog Institute estimates that around one in five (20 per cent) Australians aged 16-85 will experience a mental illness in any year.

Emma now spends her time working in Melbourne with people suffering from mental health issues, helping them overcome trauma through art therapy.

However, it wasn’t enough. Emma had a lot of clients talking to her about their anxiety and depression. “People were asking me if I could help them get their voices heard, to help break down family and social stigma. So, I decided to create an exhibition called The Black Dog,” she says.

For the past four years, Emma has held a yearly art exhibition dedicated to showcasing artwork from people who suffer from mental health issues. “I knew from my own trauma that [art] could help me, and if it could help me then maybe it can help other people,” she says.

The theme for this year’s exhibition, held from October 12–26 is; When the Black Dog Bites. “It’s all about what happens to you when depression and anxiety becomes an issue, and how that reflects in your mind, and in your body. It’s all about expressing and creating art around that theme,” Emma says.

Julie Edwards, who lives in the building where Emma holds art classes every Monday, regularly said hello to Emma. However, she was hesitant to join the group, as she did not see herself as “an artist”. Until one day she did.

“I didn’t come into it specifically as an art therapy thing, I just came in because I knew everyone, and then I started going through a hard time and I found I had full support from them. It became an important part of my life,” she says.

Not long after she joined the group, Julie fractured her ankle on her way to an appointment. She became depressed and isolated from everyone as she was unable to walk. “I was depending on people to do everything for me. And I became very down, I’d be in pain and get into bed and feel worse, but I didn’t want to sit up,” she says.

One day Julie’s daughter suggested she attend Emma’s art therapy group to create some artwork. Despite the pain, Julie pushed through and ended up creating three pieces of art, which will be displayed in the exhibition.

“When I started doing art I don’t know what happened, but something made me start feeling better and more able to cope. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I didn’t have art,” she says.

Julie says the important thing about art therapy is connecting with others. “You walk out feeling happy and I think that’s what it’s about. It gets rid of a lot of the demons. Now I’m doing other stuff with Emma and I will continue it, I’m committed to it now.”

A study, conducted in 2015, on art therapy in hospital treatment, interviewed 195 patients. The study found: “There were significant improvements in pain, mood and anxiety levels between the start and the end of art therapy sessions within all patients.”

Before working with Emma, Julie knew about depression but not art therapy. “I tried talking to someone before I tried art therapy and it was horrible. It can be good for some people, but for me it never worked. I think it needs to be talked about because there are other alternatives rather than sitting at a psychologist. There are other forms of help,” she says.

She feels very safe and protected working in an art therapy group.  “Depression has always been around, but it was never talked about. When I grew up my dad and his mates went through the war and they didn’t talk about anything. They all had their issues and my dad was an alcoholic. Looking back at it now, he didn’t get any help, so he turned to drinking,” Julie says.

“A strong therapeutic relationship can support the stress and risks associated with delving into a client’s difficult past,” says Marilyn Lee, board member of ANZACATA (The Australian, New Zealand and Asian Creative Arts Therapies Association).

She says, “People who have a strong therapeutic relationship with their therapist are more likely to stick with art therapy.”

Unknown artist uses art therapy to heal their trauma. Photo Rebecca Johansen.

Currently art therapy is not covered under Medicare in Victoria, however ANZACATA is trying to change it.

The Black Dog exhibition plays an important role in Emma’s life as it’s her passion, and her way of making a difference. “I feel it’s still not accepted to admit you’ve got depression or anxiety, and I want people to feel that it’s okay to talk about. I hid mine for many years because of the stigma attached and I don’t want other people to go through that. I want to provide a place where it’s safe to talk. It’s about showing people (who have mental health issues) they aren’t useless, and they’re a very valued person in society,” Emma says.

Emma hopes in the next five years the exhibition will become more popular, and a major event in the city of Monash. She plans to do more to help others who are suffering.

“If you’re able to help someone and share a talent you’ve got, why wouldn’t you?” she says.