How line, colour and shape can help a young person in crisis

coloured pencils on a plain background

By Jen Willis, Communications Consultant, Take Two – Berry Street.

“I really can’t draw. And I think that helps, because they can laugh at me.”

Not what you’d expect to hear from an art therapist.

Danni is a Take Two specialist working with very traumatised young people in crisis. She uses line, colour and shape to support her clinical work with young people who are admitted to Secure Welfare.

Secure Welfare is a place run by the state government, where young people can be required to stay for a few weeks when they’re at extreme risk – usually to themselves. During a significant crisis in a young person’s life, Secure Welfare provides a really structured and contained setting. It’s considered an ‘option of last resort’ because the young people can’t come and go when they want to.

Berry Street’s Take Two clinicians provide expert assessments and recommendations to the Child Protection practitioners who work with the young people placed in Secure Welfare.

Rachel
Fifteen-year-old Rachel* ran into oncoming traffic. It wasn’t the first time Rachel had tried to hurt herself, she’d previously been stitched up in hospital several times after badly cutting herself.

Her father uses heroin. Following the birth of her twin younger siblings, Rachel’s parents split up.

Her mum started using heroin too and had another two children with a different partner. After he left, Rachel’s mother and her kids were evicted from their home because she couldn’t pay the rent. They couch-surfed and stayed in a series of motel rooms while they waited for government-supported housing.

When Rachel was about 12 years-old she called Triple Zero. Her mother had gone to buy drugs and hadn’t come back. The room they were all staying in was covered in used syringes. There was no money for Rachel to buy food or nappies for her brothers and sisters.

Rachel and her siblings were placed with their Nan, a couple of hours away. 

Rachel repeatedly ran away and started using drugs. Eventually Rachel was placed in foster care. But the carers couldn’t cope with her behaviours, and Rachel was moved into a residential care unit with other teenagers.

Now 15-years-old, Rachel hadn’t been to school for months and was using drugs often. A fight on the street with her girlfriend led to Rachel nearly being hit by a car. Police were called, and Rachel was deemed to be a danger to herself and was placed in Secure Welfare for two weeks.

Take Two clinician Danni was on a beanbag drawing when Rachel entered the room.

Rachel was visibly anxious but sat in the other beanbag. Since arriving at Secure Welfare she’d come down off the drugs, had been eating better, doing some colouring in and using the gym.

Danni knew Rachel’s family were spread out all over the place. She asked Rachel if she would like to use line, colour and shape to draw her family. Danni said she’d go first and draw her own family. First Danni drew her ‘Melbourne family’ – her brother, her sister-in-law and their kids, and her cat, dog and bird.  Then she drew her ‘Sydney family’ of her parents and other siblings.

While she didn’t want to draw pictures, Rachel agreed she’d draw a diagram and write all the names of the people closest to her in her life. Danni encouraged Rachel to use colours that held meaning for her and her family members.

Rachel wrote the names of her siblings in different colours. She said both her older and her younger sisters were “girlie-girls” and liked pink. Her sister Gabby preferred being outdoors, so Rachel wrote her name in green. She got teary talking about her siblings and how much she missed them, saying she had barely spoken to any of them since she stopped living at her Nan’s house.

Rachel drew the names of her girlfriend and best friend in dark pink and with a love heart to show that she loved them.

Rachel didn’t want to talk about her parents and drew their names in black. She drew her Dad’s new partner’s name and then crossed it out in big red stripes to show how much she didn’t like her.

They talked about what Rachel wanted to do in the future and how she’d like to be a hairdresser. Danni pointed out that Rachel would need to at least finish Year 10 before she’d be able to get a hairdressing apprenticeship. Rachel said she was ashamed to return to school because she didn’t want to have to explain where she’d been.

Rachel also said she was sick of using drugs and enjoyed exercising. While she didn’t think she was ready to stop using them altogether, Rachel agreed she would need more help to reduce her drug use.

After chatting and drawing for another hour or so, Danni knew enough about Rachel’s life to make practical therapeutic recommendations for how her carers could support her once she left Secure Welfare.

They included:

– enrolling her in a new school where she could have a fresh start
– getting her a gym membership and helping her try a team sport like netball or AFL
– setting up regular phone contact and visits with her siblings across the state border
– educating her carers about how she uses marijuana to relax, and how colouring in had a calming effect and might be a substitute at times
– seeing a psychologist to help her reduce her drug use and self-harm

Danni says using crayons is useful because the young person can make choices about colours that hold meaning for them, and that can provide information about their world and relationships.

“Using art, colour and shape can create a great relaxed holding place for whatever emerges,” Danni said.

“Not all young people want to engage in this kind of assessment. In Rachel’s case, while we didn’t create art as such, the colours allowed her to better express her emotions, share information about her family and talk about her life.”

“Just sitting side-by-side and drawing together made it feel more casual, more like a chat. Young people who have experienced things like Rachel has can be really anxious and scared. So while we need to assess them, a formal assessment can be really intimidating and might actually worsen their mental state.”

Take Two is a Victoria-wide outreach service provided by Berry Street on behalf of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. The service is recognised all over the world as a leading model of how best to support children and young people who have experienced complex developmental trauma. 

Take Two can provide specialist clinical consultancy services to organisations. Contact us for more information.

Note: Names and other identifying details of the children and their families in our case studies have been changed to protect them.

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