Malchiodi: healing trauma with art therapy, saving the lives of people

Written by Zhang Xinbin (Director)

Since young, drawing has already been an authentic way for her to express herself. She often uses drawings to make sense of her trauma in her own life. She is world-renown art therapy Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, one of the pioneer art therapy experts in the United States. She is also highly respected and recognized for her achievements in research and practice in international art therapy, especially in the realm of drawing.

She once said that, when language could not properly express and carry meaning, drawing becomes a key to understanding the loss, crisis and emotional changes in life. Dr. Malchiodi is not a star-studded art therapist, nor is she immersed in the self-world and life exploration under her prestigious name, but an art therapist who uses art therapy to truly help the society, and at the same time devoted herself to art education, bringing the role of art therapy to its fullest.

Dr. Malchiodi’s first book ‘Breaking the Silence – Art Therapy for Children from Violent Families’ recorded the lives of children living with their mothers in shelters, which had tremendously changed the artistic value of children and the therapeutic effects of art therapy. In current days, the Middle East is in turmoil, with many European governments closing their doors on them, thousands of refugees have been left homeless. Serious psychological problems are shrouding people in many parts of the world.

As artist Ai Weiwei said, ‘men standing in the rain, whole body soaked, not knowing the direction of the future…You will not believe such a scene would appear in Europe in the 21st century’. How can art therapists and artists turn a blind eye to the huge realities of society?

The first job of Dr. Malchiodi after she graduated was to provide therapeutic support for women and children who were victims of violence. Many of the victims were traumatized by domestic violence or physical and sexual abuse. The work at the refugee camps made her realize that drawing is one of the rare ways to express experiences and crisis in the victims’ cases. When language becomes impossible to express, drawings can freely and safely express the depression, anxiety, fear and loneliness that have been suppressed in their subconsciousness, which just proved the important role of art in expressing emotions.

As Dr. Malchiodi said, disasters can cause psychological trauma to everyone, but through drawings, people (especially children) can use different ways to express the catastrophic events they have experienced. For some children, drawing is a simple, symbolic outlet in irresistible environments, and a channel to build sense of security.

As a pioneering figure in the field of art therapy, Dr. Malchiodi believes that art therapists not only need to understand what clients present through their drawings. It is also necessary to understanding how drawing itself helps the client, how it solves related problems and provides the client with a window for outlet beyond verbal communication. If art therapists simply pursue the superficial symbols in drawings, art therapy will become ineffective. Dr. Malchiodi always stresses that drawing does not have a fixed meaning. She believes that art therapists should pay attention to the characteristics of clients, and must respect the uniqueness of each drawing clients produce.

Dr. Malchiodi is intelligent, insightful and rich in interdisciplinary skills, which she inspired me to have more diverse perspectives and understanding on the nature of art. In order to provide people with deeper understanding of art therapy, she generously spread her pioneering views and knowledge in psychology, art, philosophy, sociology etc. At the same time, she also actively coached students who she found talented, where she encouraged Hong Kong art therapist Dr. Monica Wong to establish her own innovative clinical model, namely ‘Narrative Drawing Intervention’, and strived to work hand-in-hand with her to explore the future development of art therapy.

This year, at the 3rd International Conference on Art Therapy, held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China, Dr. Malchiodi will be the keynote speaker, once again proudly announcing the latest research results of art therapy, gathering art therapists from more than 20 different countries/regions.

With the World Refugee Day on its way, thousands of refugees still would not find hope due to the shutting of border gates. Do they still have basic human rights, can they still survive with dignity?

The Italian government has just drafted a new bill that would impose fines on NGOs searching for refugees, meaning that those who save lives will have to pay their price.

Can art change them? Can art therapy change them? Will the world be better? The Italian government may have given a desperate answer.

Dr. Malchiodi, the master of art therapy, may not change the whole world, but she can heal the pain in people’s hearts and save one’s life through art therapy.

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