Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Art and Drugs: An Old Story With A Twist

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 11, 2014

“Loyola Marymount University’s Marital and Family Therapy Department offers students an innovative program that leads to a Master of Arts in Marital and Family Therapy with specialized training in Clinical Art Therapy.

Students are trained to integrate their visual art backgrounds with psychotherapeutic skills as they work with a variety of clients, including children, adolescents, adults and families. The training fully prepares students to become practicing marital and family therapists committed to utilizing art processes in their work as psychotherapists.”

“Do psychotropics change the art?” I ask my students as I teach these LMU students about psychopharmacology. “What about the clock test for dementia?” I ask, wondering if they can decipher how one’s brain deteriorates as evidenced by the deterioration in their clock drawing. . It is my privilege to ask these questions of eager students, artists, who want to coach artistic output in their patients in order  to ameliorate the suffering they see in kids, adolescents and adults, many of whom are underprivileged and have little access to mental health interventions. The students, endlessly interesting themselves, seek the inner world of their patients through an artistic expression, allowing a springboard to deeper exploration and mental healing. As a psychoanalyst I would say that these therapists are bypassing the conscious, heading towards unconscious thought processes, through artistic expression.

Some of these patients are on medication, or need to be on medication, so these students need to understand who to refer for psychotropic medication, and they need to know how to communicate with the prescribing physician, about the impact of the medication, on the art, on the therapy, and on the mental apparatus of the patient. That is where I enter into the curriculum. It is my job to help them understand the armamentarium of drugs that we use to help people with their mental distress. Moreover, it is my job to give them confidence to call that doctor and to weigh in adamantly about their impressions of the treatment. Empowering my students to communicate with physicians is a distinct challenge, because medical care, as it is in this country, is a hierarchy, and as such, these student therapists often worry about being humiliated. “You know this patient better than anyone,” I say, knowing the hours and hours they spend with their clients, working on their art, talking to them about themselves, their families, their traumatic experiences, and their hopes for the future. “I am a psychiatrist, and I am busy, and I may be short with you, if you call me, but it is helpful if you, in a nice way, can get to the point quickly and assertively.” I say, trying to break down this invisible wall between the MD and the therapist. “Drugs can change the art, and art can change how the drugs are perceived. You are on those front lines. Don’t forget that.” I say, thrilled to be a part of their education.




2 Responses to “Art and Drugs: An Old Story With A Twist”

  1. Shelly said

    Who asks for the psychotropics, the art therapist or the patient? If the physician, after seeing the patient, disagrees, the medication won’t be prescribed. The therapist doesn’t work in a vacuum–he or she isn’t the link between patient and clinician to decide if medication will or will not be prescribed. After all, isn’t art therapy a para medical profession? In my opinion, the art therapist will assist in the therapy part, but does not get involved in the medication aspect of the treatment. Am I wrong?

    • The answer is…it depends…on the treatment model. Some people work collaboratively and in so doing the art therapist has a lot to say about whether the patient needs medication and then about the impact of that medication on the treatment. Other times, people work more independently and there is poor communication between professionals. Art therapists are licensed therapists and so they are providers of medical care, but they cannot prescribe medication. Thanks, as always.

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