Unconventional Therapies

Sonya MacMillan
Interdisciplinary Studies
Robin Derosa
Spring 2015

Unconventional Therapies
            Before diving into an analysis of my project I think it is important that the motivation and process for my project are understood to really get the whole picture. The inspiration for creating a project like the one I have for my senior capstone stems from an occurrence that happens quite frequently in my life. Often I am asked what my major is, and what I want to do with as far as a career path goes. When prompting the answer ‘Art Therapist’ I am regularly met with a bewildered gaze and bombarded with a series of questions regarding my chosen profession. I would say that the most frequent responses would include, ‘What is art therapy?’ and ‘What does an art therapist do?’ which is something that I never realized I would ever encounter when I made this decision. I thought this was an interesting response because I was never asked something like that when I previously thought that I wanted to be a veterinarian, or an art teacher, because these are professions that everyone knows about. To me, this brings to light the lack of public knowledge when it comes to the entire field of art therapy in general. But the unawareness of available resources does not just stop at art therapy.
            Last fall I was offered a position as an assistant to a professor conducting a research study. This research study was funded by a grant for a New Hampshire company that runs an adaptive sports program in the New England area. The purpose of our study was to prove whether or not adaptive sports programs affect participant’s quality of life, and how. Originally I wanted this to be the corner stone of my capstone project, however I was quickly confronted with many questions from others wondering how this related to my art therapy career goals. It wasn’t until I had my interview at Lesley University for their graduate program MA in Expressive Therapies that I really made the connection between my program of study and this project I was working on outside of school.
            My interviewer at Lesley began our chat with an explanation of their schools Art Therapy program, and what it is all about. The main emphasis that she put on her entire introduction to this program was integration, and what she called ‘cross pollination’. Expressive therapy is not about using just one form of therapy to get the job done because this often never works. The needs of every patient will be different and their course of therapeutic treatment should be different as well. This immediately stuck out to me because this is what the interdisciplinary study program is all about. She really put into perspective for me that there is so much more than just art that is involved with the Art Therapy program itself, and that is why their program is titled ‘Expressive Therapies’.
            Every expressive therapy student is required to take courses in other therapeutic forms of therapy such as dance, or movement therapy. That is when I had my ah-ha moment. To me, psychotherapy when stated plainly sounds boring and unoriginal, most people just envision a sit down talk that you might see on television between therapist and patient where the therapist asks ‘how does that make you feel?’ constantly. What many practicing therapist, as well as myself, would love to see happen is an evolution and broadening to the next stages of psychotherapy. Into a world that integrates many different facets of therapy to get the most psychological benefit combined with an interdisciplinary approach to whichever field of therapy they are applying at the moment.
            As research continues to broaden with more studies conducted we are finding more and more of what I like to call ‘unconventional therapies’ having a significant positive affect on participants. Some of those include, art, music, dance and movement, sport, equine, pet and animal, and so many others. The only real problem with this is that no one seems to know about them! Art Therapy, and Music Therapy are likely the most well known unconventional therapies to the everyday person, however, there are so many other kinds of therapies that can be so useful yet remain under the radar. For example Havey discovered in a research study that Animal-assisted therapy or AAT, significantly reduced the need for oral pain medication use after a joint replacement surgery. (Havey, 2014) Information like this could change the lives of countless others that may be undergoing any form of surgery, as well as minimize the risk for future substance abuse problems. In an even more astounding study that was looking into music therapy’s effect on breast milk production in preterm mothers, Douglas Keith found, “Mothers in the experimental groups produced significantly more milk (p<.0012). Mothers in these groups also produced milk with significantly higher fat content during the first six days of the study.” (2011) Studies like these fly under the radar, even though research like this suggests there is a biological and chemical alteration going on with these mothers as they are listening to music.
            Evidence for the success and promotion of art therapy programs across the nation has been beginning to gain momentum over the past decade or so. Because of the heightened awareness of the program more studies are being conducted to find out exactly what affects art can have on a person psychologically and emotionally. The research is turning out to be pretty astounding: “Artwork in healthcare settings can reduce stress and anxiety, shorten hospital stays, enhance the chance of healing and recovery, heighten feelings of wellness, and lower the need for pain medication.” (Gelo, 2015) Both the studies on art therapy and animal-assisted therapy have provided evidence that they can be helpful in lowering the amount of pain medications need in patients. These can both be huge strides towards closing the gap against substance abuse, something that is highly linked to mental health disorders, and also a personal issue for me. My goal is to create awareness of these programs and even more specifically, inform the immediate and local public of what kind of unconventional therapy programs we have available right here in New Hampshire.     
            For my project I have created a website and blog that comments on and provides evidence for four different kinds on unconventional therapies. These include, Art Therapy, Music Therapy, Pet and Animal Therapy, and Sport Therapy. Each topic is outlined, giving the reader a clear understanding of what exactly each therapy is, how they are useful. I also elaborate on research done to provide evidence for the positive effects of each form of unconventional therapy. I decided that the research would be a key piece to this program because I feel that while it is great that we have these programs around, people will need more information to be sold on its validity, especially folks that are skeptical about its significance and value. Another thing that I thought was important to me specifically is tying all of these programs back to our home base, New England. I want to be sure that there is enough information to not only get the reader excited about to program, but also give them the means to get involved and actively participate in something like an adaptive sport program right here in New Hampshire.
            All of this would be impossible without the use of interdisciplinary insights from all of the contributing fields. There are countless disciplines that can contribute valuable insights including health, psychology, art, music, sociology, anthropology, education, dance, and philosophy. This is why an interdisciplinary approach is so vital to the world of therapy in our new age. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to integrate different fields with psychotherapy to make it more beneficial to our patients?’ without interdisciplinary insights we would lack the variety necessary for unconventional therapies. For my project I have decided to focus on the three disciplines of art, psychology and health. Psychology as a standalone discipline neglects the highly beneficial insights gained by the field of expressive therapy that is being used. This is the same predicament we are faced with if we choose to neglect an interdisciplinary approach and proceed with strictly art, or health insights. We would neglect useful information about the human psyche and its effects in conjunction with the therapy.
            The scope of my research project is broad to say the least. There are just so many people that can benefit from these forms of therapy it becomes difficult to narrow it down. What I have done to combat this is taken a focus on New Hampshire. The set up of my website focuses on the explanation of the therapy program, research that supports it, and then narrows the scope to just the New England and then New Hampshire area. I did this because I did think that my scope was too large at first, but focusing on the Northeast I am able to limit my research to people that most likely will read it.
            I want to offer the insights that are gained from these expressive therapies to the public. So many people remain unaware of these programs; I want them to have this information so that they will be able to utilize these forms of therapy. If people are suffering from anything from autism to anxiety, schizophrenia to hospice care, there can be a form of expressive therapy that can be helpful to them. To do this we need to understand that expressive therapies is an umbrella term, one that falls under the interdisciplinary approach quite easily. Repko states, “interdisciplinary process is an overarching approach for dealing with complexity and its open to using multiple disciplinary methods for studying the problem.” (pg. 211). Every form of expressive therapy will be complex in its own sense because there will never be just one disciple to evaluate, often there will be insights from three of four disciplines to evaluate. No single discipline has been able to completely define the need for, and the success of expressive therapies because psychology has never been looked at as a more interdisciplinary field; it has always been very singular. Combining the insights of art, music, or movement with a psychological perspective is too fruitful to leave undiscovered.
            Health and psychology are easily intertwined and they mirror each other in a lot of the insights that they possess. However when art is thrown into the mix there can be some conflicts. The key to the expressive therapy programs is figuring out how these fields relate to each other and what insights become evident when we cross pollenate these fields. Psychology and health can offer vastly different perspectives into the human mind than art can. We see the psychological versus the kinesthetic and spatial part of the mind butting heads. While psychology seeks to analyze and pick apart every movement until the final product art is about the process and the concept of kinesthetic therapeutic movement. This challenged me from a personal perspective as an artist. In order for me to fully understand the health and psychology insights I needed to put aside my bias as an artist and see the facts for what they are. This is something that I feel everyone should do even as an expert.
            As an interdisciplinarian I feel that it can be limiting to be ‘expert’ in just one field when there are so many other insights from other disciplines to consider. I think that is why there has been such a gap in the amount of time it took psychology to get rolling to the amount of time expressive therapies is taking to start up. Expressive therapies takes on its own world outside of this classroom, this program would cease to exist if it wasn’t for the doctors talking to the psychologists who talk to the art teachers and finding that there was a mutual benefit from all of their disciplines. If we were are a little more rounded, or all took the time to consider an interdisciplinary approach, the fruitful insights of expressive therapies would have been discovered and implemented much sooner than it has been. There is a gap between the disciplines that needs to be bridged by communication of insight and cross-pollination of disciplines.
I am really happy with my project. At the beginning of the semester I thought that I had everything figured out, only to hit a wall where my project did not connect to my major at all. It was hard for me to begin to describe how these two worlds connected, but I feel like I hit a happy medium. What I feel was the most successful is the fact that its not only informational, its implementable. So people can use my site to gain knowledge around the program itself, and then just follow a link to sign up and start the program in the real world. It makes me happy that I could potentially be responsible for someone finally finding a form of therapy that works for them, and I guess that as an Art Therapist in waiting, that satisfaction is something that I should be getting more excited about creating in my own patients lives. I just think that it is important for all therapists, no matter what kind you are, cognitive behavioral, divorce, marital, or psychotherapist, to be aware of all the available outlets for your patients, no matter how unconventional.


Gelo, F., Klassen, A. C., & Gracely, E. (2015). Patient use of images of artworks to promote conversation and enhance coping with hospitalization. Arts & Health: An International Journal Of Research, Policy And Practice, 7(1), 42-53. doi:10.1080/17533015.2014.961492

Havey, J., Vlasses, F. R., Vlasses, P. H., Ludwig-Beymer, P., & Hackbarth, D. (2014). The effect of animal-assisted therapy on pain medication use after joint replacement. Anthrozoös, 27(3), 361-369. doi:10.2752/175303714X13903827487962

Keith, Douglas (2011). Music Therapy and Breast Milk for Premature Mothers: An Exploratory Study.
Repko, A. F., Szostak, R., & Buchberger, M. P. (2014). Introduction to interdisciplinary studies

1 comment:

  1. The research here feels pretty light, so I think both here and on the website it would be helpful to hear more about the specifics of the therapies you cover, and more from experts within psych and within each field talking about efficacy studies and qualitative experiences. But the shape of the project is great, and with a bit more filling-in, this could really be a significant contribution to an emerging field!