Art Therapy in the Cultural Context of Trauma

Art Therapy's Role in Disaster Recovery
May 5, 2015 5:05 PM ET
Art Therapist, Laura Greenstone

In light of the recent tragic events in Nepal and Baltimore, I was invited to write about working as an art therapist in disaster response and trauma. Both events, although divergent, involve a duality of forces with a profound impact on community and culture.  The riots in Baltimore -- a city plagued by historical trauma and societal violence in response to ongoing inequality, and the earthquake in Nepal, birthplace of the Buddha and the spiritual epicenter of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a reminder to us that trauma is both personal and communal. We are all citizens of the world.

I work with families that have experienced Domestic Violence, trauma and loss. I am a NJ Disaster Response Crisis Counselor. NJ is one of the first states to have a formal process for this certification. I have worked with survivors of 9/11, Haitian earthquake refugees, and with families impacted by Super Storm Sandy in coastal NJ, I have provided a range of services including; crisis response, psychosocial support and trauma treatment.

Art therapists in disaster response work with organizations that are authorized to provide services in state or federally declared disaster areas. They are trained in principles of Psychological First Aid, which “is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and terrorism to reduce initial distress and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning” (Retrieved May 3, 2015:

Initially the art therapist provides therapeutic art making, focusing on emotional containment and grounding with non-regressive material when and if appropriate. The purpose of “Art Based Psychological First Aid” is to provide safety, comfort and to attend to immediate needs. The services are “therapeutic” rather than therapy, as participants have not signed consent to participate.

Months after the crisis has stabilized, healing art activities may be used to instill feelings of safety, promote resiliency and build on strengths in community settings. After Super Storm Sandy, I worked with NJATA and CHART, Inc., to create an art therapy disaster response model that was provided to over 120 individuals impacted by the storm. We hope to publish this model in the future. CHART, Inc., (Communities Healing through Art) is a nonprofit organization based in the United States, which specializes in providing psychosocial support through the arts to underserved communities and those affected by man-caused and natural disasters. CHART has participated in a broad range of national and international disaster relief efforts. (Retrieved May 4, 2015; Clinical art therapy may be used for those in need of trauma treatment for the months and years after disaster.

The Nepal earthquake has killed over 7000 Nepalese and caused damage to roads in mountainous areas making it difficult to provide relief aid.  Baxter Garcia, PhD., Director of CHART has communicated with art therapists providing services in Nepal and says, “CHART has initiated a call to action. They are reaching out within the art therapy community for research, funding, and individuals interested in responding.” Gaelynn Wolf Bordonaro, PhD., ATR-BC serves as the Clinical Director of CHART.

Unlike a natural or manmade disaster such as terrorism, the riots in Baltimore have roots in “Historical” trauma. “The impact of this type of trauma manifests itself, emotionally and psychologically, in members of different cultural groups (Brave Heart, 2011). As a collective phenomenon, those who never even experienced the traumatic stressor, such as children and descendants, can still exhibit signs and symptoms of trauma…”(Retrieved May 2, 2015:

Martin Luther King’s remarks to the American Psychological Association in 1967 are still relevant today, "Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections…There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act.” (Retrieved May 2, 2015:

I heard John Lewis, U.S., Representative and Civil Rights Leader, speak about the importance of the arts in culture, while advocating for art therapy in Washington, D.C. In a speech this year, he said, “Without the arts…civil rights would be like a bird without wings”. Retrieved from (Retrieved May 2, 2015: Art therapy in social action can help that bird take flight.

We may not all be experts in multiculturalism, but it is imperative that we are sensitive to both the macro-cultural and micro-cultural issues in communities and individuals affected by trauma and disaster. As MATA prepares to host the AATA conference in Baltimore in 2016, we take their lead in assisting them in their community. When working with clients with historical, societal or other traumas, it is imperative that trauma-informed art therapists partner with communities and are aware of the systems involved in response.


AATA Members interested in trauma are reminded to use this resource:


Contact: Baxter Garcia, Director

Greenstone, L. (2013) Jersey Coast Creates Update, NJATA Spring Newsletter

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