HEAL art therapist Sue Cameron spoke to ABC Radio Brisbane’s Rebecca Levingston about HEAL’s expressive therapy in the lead up to our Songs of Hope and Healing Benefit Concert on 7 June 2022.
Listen to the broadcast here, or read the transcript below.
Rebecca Levingston: This is ABC Radio Brisbane with Rebecca Levingston. But let me take you to a different event that’s going to be happening in Brisbane tomorrow night and it’s all about healing. When you say the word HEAL, I wonder what you think of? Hope, forgiveness, love. In this case, it’s actually an acronym.
HEAL stands for Home of Expressive Arts and Learning. It is a program that gives creative arts therapy to young people from refugee backgrounds, and tomorrow night HEAL is hosting a concert to raise money for the program. It’s at the Queensland Performing Arts Center. Mahalia Barnes will be there.
But what’s it all about? Well, Sue Cameron is a HEAL art therapist. She’s based at St James College in Spring Hill. Good morning, Sue. Your job sounds wonderful – an art therapist – what is that?
Sue Cameron: It is an absolutely fantastic job. I get to work with the most amazing young people. We have a lot of fun while also healing.
I work mainly with newly arrived refugee students in secondary schools. I’m based at St James College in Spring Hill. Our program really offers students extra support while they’re settling into the Australian education system. Often students arrive from war zones, quite shocked, having to adjust everything in their lives. So having that little bit of extra support at school to just process what they’ve been through, to get some support to understand what they need to learn for the new school system is so important for their successful future.
Rebecca: And in some instances, Sue, if English is not their first language, is art a way of connecting and communicating that’s not so confronting or stressful?
Sue: Very much so, yes. For young people who have experienced very traumatic experiences, even if they have English language, it can be very, very difficult to express what they’re feeling about that, and often they don’t know what they’re feeling, so that’s a really important role for us as creative arts therapists. And art is just a natural form for that. It’s body-based, and we know that trauma is experienced through the body. So it gives them a chance to process what they’ve been through, but also to express a lot of joy and hope as they find new ways of experiencing things.
Rebecca: What does that mean – body based in terms of the trauma and the art therapy as well?
Sue: Well art is naturally body-based. We also do a lot of movement work, but certainly when people have experienced significant trauma and perhaps are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we know that memories are kind of captured in the body.
And it can be almost impossible for young people to verbally express that, but through the art they can reflect on it. They can identify what’s going on for themselves and begin to put some meaning around that, so it really helps them to settle.
We use a lot of mindfulness-based practices. We work with young people to establish a kind of self-regulation process for them. And then also to help them set goals for themselves so that they can really start to engage with the school system, whether that be through sports, or through other community activities. So, we work very closely with school staff as a team-based approach.
Rebecca: You’re listening to Sue Cameron, who actually, Sue you have such a lovely, soothing, speaking voice, even as you’re talking about it, so I can understand why you’d be the perfect art therapist to work with young people – in some instances, newly arrived refugees to Australia. And in fact, HEAL – the home of expressive arts and learning – is having a fundraising concert tomorrow night that you can go along too. It’s at QPAC. It’ll be a beautiful evening with fabulous talent. Mahalia Barnes is going to be performing as well as hearing from some of the people who have benefited from HEAL.
So what’s your background? How did you get into art therapy?
Sue: I’ve come from a background in visual arts and psychology training, but also many years work in the community sector, so I’ve worked with families and young people from many different backgrounds, cultural backgrounds. And I guess that I’ve always had an interest in trauma and the use of art to recover from trauma – through personal experience, but also through people who are close to me and watching them recover from trauma. So I’ve always known that art was a really powerful medium for that, and so it was a natural fit for me to go into art therapy.
Rebecca: Can you tell us about a young person you’ve worked with and, you know, what sort of activities you’ve done? How you saw them change or grow?
Sue: We offer a really diverse range of experiences and it really depends on the school that we’re working in. We really individualize our support according to the school system and what’s needed.
But we do a lot of individual and small group therapy which is evidence based and strength based. So a very common example would be a young person referred to us by a school teacher, because they’re not learning in class.
An example I had was a young man who came from Myanmar. He’d been in refugee camps. He’d become increasingly withdrawn since he’d arrived at the school. He wasn’t able to learn, so he came and started seeing me. When he first came, even though we use interpreters, he could not articulate anything about what was going on for himself. So we just started to work with the art and develop a relationship. The art is very much in the context of a very supportive relationship. And over time we were able to articulate that he’d lost family members, that another family member was currently ill, and this was just causing him a huge amount of concern. So there was a lot of trauma around the loss of parents.
We began to then define the feelings that he was having, but also the things that he would like to connect with at the school – so that involved sport, and some extra learning support. We provide a wraparound service, as well as referring on to external organisations outside of the school, so that would be a very typical kind of referral that we would get.
Rebecca: You can’t imagine the contrasting worlds in some instances, as you say, if you’re coming from a conflict zone, or perhaps long term in a refugee camp, and then to come to another country. I remember a conversation I had with a woman, a mum, a couple of years ago, who was talking about the idea, you know, there’s so much going on, and there’s a lot of pressure to be grateful for what assistance you are given. But she said she was in a house with a refrigerator, and where she had come from she had never had access to (a refrigerator), so even the understanding of purchasing food that you could keep at your home…And then at the same time, in a first world country like Australia, there’s actually so much waste, and so there’s this kind of kaleidoscope of emotions and contrasts, and you think of that through the eyes of a young person…
Sue: Yes, and our young people, they’re just dealing with everything. So navigating going to the shop, being able to ask for something that they want. Even their schools – if they have been in school in the country they’ve come from, the school system is often very different. So actually learning how the Australian school system works on top of everything else that they’ve experienced. We work closely with families, but also recognise that their parents are really busy with settling into the new country, so we can provide that extra support at the school. And the most important thing that young people have articulated to us is developing a sense of belonging and safety. So they’re our priority areas – for them to feel that they belong, that school is a safe place for them, a place where they can thrive. And we have a lot of fun, like, it’s not all serious! We have a lot of fun and that’s why I’m so excited about this concert tomorrow because it I think it expresses a lot of the joy that we experience in working with these young people. Because they are absolutely incredible people, and they’re going to be the most amazing citizens. So we’re really, really grateful to QPAC for supporting this and to work in partnership with QPASTT who is our coordinating group to run the concert tomorrow.
Rebecca: Well, if people can get along and support you, that’ll be a wonderful thing. So 7 o’clock tomorrow night. Tickets are available at QPAC now for the HEAL concert. Mahalia Barnes will there will be there along with a whole range of different cultural performers. And what a special organization you guys are, HEAL – home of expressive arts and learning. Thank you so much, it’s been a delight to meet you.
Sue: Oh, thank you for inviting me in.
HEAL founder and art therapist Jane Griffin spoke to ABC Radio National’s Jennifer Leake about HEAL’s expressive therapy at Milpera State High School.
Click the image to listen to the broadcast, or read the transcript below.
JENNIFER LEAKE: When Jane Griffin was in the middle of studying Fine Arts, she had to complete an elective which involves going out to do work in the community. She chose to do some environmental education with students at Milpera State High in Brisbane. Jane knew a lot of the kids were newly arrived immigrants and thought it would be useful. But she soon realized the students needed something quite different. Jane Griffin is now an art psychotherapist at Milpera State High School. I spoke with her earlier in the week.
JANE GRIFFIN: When I got there, I was using art to teach the kids about litter and keeping the environment clean. And if they ever had any spare time at the end, then they would just do free drawing. And most of the kids in the class were South Sudanese kids and they would often spend that time drawing scenes of horror – of helicopters shooting at people, of dead bodies, of people bleeding, and I said to the teacher, “Wow, what do we do with this?” And she said, “It’s hard to know.” So I thought, I’m going to go and study art therapy and find out what we can do about this.
JL: Wow, that’s quite confronting. You know, to think if you had one kid that was drawing that, that would be, you know, full on, but to think that’s what most of them were drawing. Have you ever experienced anything like that before?
JG: No, I was really surprised and I was quite shocked by the content of the drawings, but it also amazed me how stories will come out in art. They weren’t meant to be drawing their past or their history or what had happened to them. They were just having free drawing time and that’s what they chose to draw. So I went to study creative arts therapy at MIECAT, which is a very good course and later I followed it up with the Masters of Mental Health at UQ in Art Therapy – and then I understood what was going on with those stories. To some extent. The amazing thing about art therapy is it’s such an appealing thing for adolescents and for many people, because it’s not sitting down talking to someone about your problem. It’s creative methods of looking at the way your life is and very successful with kids and adults.
JL: Yeah, and I suppose you know, potentially dealing with some trauma and going through some issues is kind of a byproduct that sneaks up on the person rather than that being the first thing they’re trying to do, like you would with the counselor, perhaps.
JG: Exactly. And in art therapy, we don’t mine for the trauma story. Often trauma will out. There’s no avoiding it, but we certainly don’t go into the therapy sessions saying to the children, “tell us what happened,” because it that’s not always the best thing for someone to do.
JL: So what is art therapy?
JG: A process which can use all sorts of creativity like art, making movement, drama, playing, sand play, anything creative really, which supports a child within a therapeutic relationship to improve their self-awareness, to offer them at a safe space to look at emotional regulation, at how they are in the world. If they want to – where they’ve been and where they’re going. And it uses creativity as a tool, but creativity is of itself healing as well.
JL: Can you give me an example of how a session might work?
JG: When we do this work, we need a confidential space and often a telephone because we’re working with kids at Milpera who may not have English yet and you might need to use a telephone interpreter. We’re lucky that we have a dedicated standalone building at Milpera now, which we’ve had since 2005. And it’s really good to have that building at the school, because if you can work in the school, there’s no barriers like cost or transport or stigma as far as attending therapy. And the way that it works is, we assess kids on arrival at the school. Milpera is a school that does continual enrollment because kids are arriving from overseas all the time, well particularly pre-COVID, and we assess them using creative methods, which we’ve devised, and it gives us a little idea about how steady they’re feeling in the world, whether they benefit from having someone seeing them each week or not, and if we do decide that they could do with the help then we’ll timetable them on for a 40 minute session each week, individually or into a group session once a week.
JL: And what are the signs that someone would really benefit from one of these sessions?
JG: Usually the biggest sign is that they’re not learning. It really ranges from the child who’s sitting in class not engaging with the teacher or with classmates and not really engaging with the world. It ranges from that to the further end of the spectrum where someone is angry, upset, causing conflict, unable to sit still in their seat and anything in between. I mean, these are kids who have been through really difficult times. They’ve suffered grief and loss and displacement. They’ve come to a place where they have never seen before. They often can’t speak the language. Their parents are also upset they’ve had to leave their home in a hurry, or they’ve lived in a refugee camps for 10 years or more. And life has been quite unkind to them, and now they’re here, and we expect them to sit in a classroom and learn. And although they do bring a lot of strengths and they’re amazingly resilient, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.
JL: Once you get a student in there and they start drawing, how does it evolve?
JG: We would usually give directives because it’s very threatening to just have to come into a room with a strange person you don’t know and draw. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable with that. And you can’t assume that these kids have had the experience of drawing. Not all of them have had access to materials, whereas others may have had a lot of school and know all about art. It’s very variable, depending on whether they’re coming from a village in Sri Lanka or a high school in Syria.
The directive might be something like, “let’s think about the future,” because thinking about the future is a luxury, believe it or not, which some kids haven’t had. So let’s do a drawing or a collage of you in 10 years’ time … So now you’re 15. Let’s think about where you might be when you’re 25 and who will be in your life, where you might be working or studying. What will you have? What you will drive? What kind of look you will be going for? All of those sorts of things. And so then the child will spend some time just creating that picture and thinking about the future and then at the end of the session we will talk about what that picture meant and where those ideas came from.
The creativity may take unusual forms, for example, if we’re asking you to make a lifeline of all the journeys in your life, because often our children have been in four or five different places, then we might just ask them to do it with colored stones along a ribbon. So that’s creative art therapy method for kids who may not be very comfortable with reading and writing. Yet they would much prefer to put some colored stones and fake flowers along a ribbon to show the good and bad times in their journey.
JL: You’re listening to ABC radio. My name is Jen Leake. I’m speaking with Jane Griffin. She’s an arts psychotherapist and she works at the Milpera State High School in Brisbane. I imagine when you first started getting a picture of what some of these kids have been through, it would have been pretty shocking. How do you get your head around trying to empathize and understand what they’ve been through.
JG: I think that when I first began, I did a lot of reading about the countries that the kids came from. Nowadays, of course we have a lot available to us. You know the kids from the Ukraine – I know what they’ve been through because it’s on the news every night. The kids from Syria, similarly. I don’t think that you’re a psychotherapist unless you’re an empathetic person anyway, but it certainly helps to know a bit about the countries they come from and to have some idea of what they might have been through. Because the kids themselves are the best teachers of that. And so we art therapists are very open to hearing their interpretation of their stories. If that’s where they want to go in the session. An important thing to remember is we’re working with adolescents, and they’re very interested in the new place, and they’re interested in fashion and meeting the opposite gender. So there are other things that they want to focus on sometimes too.
JL: What kind of changes have you seen in kids that you’ve worked with?
JG: One of the main reasons that the service exists in school is so that we can help them improve their learning ability, and we find that in our work we are helping them recover from the trauma and dislocation of their journey. We see them getting improved emotional regulation, learning how to self soothe, their confidence builds. They learn to use creativity as an outlet, and I think also an important thing is that we normalize help seeking. Because we say to them, “this is therapy and you can get this when you’re an adult too,” and you know, we explain to them that they’re very lucky having it at school. And we explain about the confidentiality, and the way it works, and I think it will help them in the future if they need to seek help as well.
JL: You use that term self soothe, which is something I recognize from when I had little babies. That was something people would talk about getting your babies to self soothe. What does that mean for teenagers?
JG: Well, usually it’s about teaching the methods of mindfulness like deep breathing or movement methods. We often use yoga with our kids. For some of them, they’ve never had an experience of body stretches and yoga, and it’s very good for them, especially if they’re in a tense posture from the stress of their lives and the stress of trying to learn in their second or third language.
We often teach ways to do deep breathing in ways that they can actually do in class without anybody noticing, so that if they start to feel panicked or start to feel overcome, they can just quietly, you know, there’s one where they count on their fingers under the desk while breathing slowly in holding it, breathing slowly out, and that’s very helpful for them.
JL: The Milpera State High School got impacted by the most recent floods in Brisbane and I think the 2011 floods as well. That would have disrupted a lot of things for students. What was the impact of that?
JG: Well, both times we had to move our whole school out to a different site, which is interesting to say the least. And both times I was astounded at the resilience of the kids. They just got on with it, and I suppose in the scheme of things, if you’ve had to leave Afghanistan in a big hurry because of guns at your back, then moving from a flooded site to a very comfortable other place isn’t that big a deal. I think we teachers and therapists probably found it harder than the kids did. Really, they managed it very well and we weren’t out in the second flood as long as we were the first flood. Now we’re back. At Milpera, I can see the kids are very happy to be back. They look on it as a place of belonging and they’ve settled back in really well and quickly.
JL: Oh, that’s great. It can be difficult to really engage with what refugees have to deal with coming to Australia. It can feel quite distant. Why do you think it’s important for Australians who aren’t refugees to really try and understand more of the stories of these people.
JG: I think it’s really important for people to think in a humanitarian way. Full stop, anyway. But I think it’s important for people, if they can to hear some refugee background people stories because they’re in some ways unbelievable, the things they’ve gone through and the things that have happened to them. And yet here they are. And here they are making good lives and doing the best that they can with every opportunity that they get. I think it would be a kinder world if more people got to know people from refugee backgrounds. But having said that, a lot of our past students, after they’ve been at Milpera, they go into their mainstream high school or to TAFE, and often they move away from that refugee label, which I think is a healthy thing. And when they meet people in the future, those people may never know that they had a refugee background, and I think that it’s a testament to how well they’re able to settle. That they kind of can take on their new identity. They hold onto parts of their original, of course, but they’re not all about having been that refugee. I think it’s really helpful for people to learn about refugee lives because they’re human lives. And as we’ve seen in Ukraine, it can happen to anyone.
Our hearts are with everyone in the Australian Afghan community.
HEAL, together with QPASTT, have compiled a fact sheet with further resources and links for schools and teachers supporting Afghan students and their families in Australia. Download the PDF document at https://bit.ly/3kiLC50.
For anyone in the Queensland Afghan community that needs support at this time, QPASTT (Queensland Program of Assistance for Survivors of Torture and Trauma) can assist with counselling and other support. Please call them on 07 3391 6677 if you or someone you know needs support.
I am pleased to present the 2019 Annual Report for The Friends of HEAL Foundation.
Working with children and teens of refugee backgrounds in school is both an interesting occupation and a privilege, and I have been grateful for the opportunity throughout 2019. Since 2004, I have sat beside many kids with immensely sad stories, tragic tales, horrifying journeys, and awful experiences around war and fleeing home. However, working with these children also tells me of their great strengths, their courage, their determination, and their adaptability. They are a diverse collection of kids, with different backgrounds and experiences.