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Art therapy helping to break down barriers 11 December 2008

Art therapyTHE use of art therapy is helping to provide an important breakthrough in the rehabilitation of offenders in the Isle of Man.

The Probation Service has recently embarked on a pilot study to gauge how the process can contribute to the effective management of high-risk individuals. Initial feedback has been extremely positive, with both the offenders and their probation officers reporting an improvement in attitude and outlook.

Art therapy has proved particularly beneficial in cases where traditional supervision techniques have reached an impasse. Probationers may be reluctant to communicate, express their emotions or address the issues that lead to their offending behaviour.

However, the use of different art materials – such as paint, clay and collage – can break down those barriers. The overall aim is to reduce the risk of re-offending and help individuals to integrate back into the local community.

The pilot study is being conducted on a voluntary basis by Lynn Ansell who gained a Masters degree in art psychotherapy after three years of intensive study at Queen’s University, Belfast. Lynn, a member of the British Association of Art Therapists, has previously worked within the Probation Service in Northern Ireland as part of her clinical training. She is now working with a small number of offenders in the Isle of Man and has been encouraged by the progress achieved since embarking on the project in October.

Lynn explained:

‘Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art materials as its means of communication and self-exploration. It provides an appropriate medium to explore and contain a range of emotions which otherwise would be difficult or impossible to express.’

Lynn, who is registered with the Health Professions Council, was introduced to the Isle of Man Probation Service by probation officer Ian Ledger and deals with offenders on a one-to-one basis. Candidates who fulfil certain criteria, often those who are considered to pose a high risk of re-offending, are referred for art therapy and the process is explained at an initial meeting.

If an offender is willing to participate in the programme a series of weekly one-hour sessions is arranged. A review takes place after six weeks and a decision is made whether or not to continue. Sessions are not compulsory or a condition of any probation or supervision orders, but the attendance rate has been 100 per cent to date.

Lynn, who is also an occupational therapist, said:

‘Offenders who are referred for art therapy need not have had previous experience or skill in art as its focus is not on making an aesthetic image. The aim of the art therapist is to enable an offender to effect change and growth on a personal level through the use of different art materials in a safe and facilitating environment. The artwork reflects both conscious and unconscious feeling, engaging the person in an extension or re-appraisal of life.’

Attitude and behaviour can begin to change gradually through experimentation with new art forms and lines of communication that were previously blocked may open up. All sessions are strictly confidential and the artwork produced is not shown to any outside parties without the permission of the offender.

Chief Probation Officer David Sellick is monitoring the progress of the pilot study and is hopeful that it will achieve some tangible results.

He said:

‘We are looking at how art therapy can play a role in the overall fabric of the Probation Service in the Island. The work undertaken so far has shown that art therapy can compliment offenders’ supervision by opening up creative possibilities. Our probation officers have noticed a positive difference and feel the sessions are proving very worthwhile. If the pilot study is successful it is hoped the service can be extended and become an accepted part of managing offenders within the community.’

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