Academic and clinical interest regarding the intersection of comics and health care is high right now, which is no surprise to readers of Counseling Today. The July 2017 issue of Counseling Today featured a cover story titled “‘Cultured’ counseling” that provided perspectives on the clinical utility of integrating pop culture (such as video games, movies and comic books) into counseling practice. Similarly, both the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association have devoted time and journal space to covering the topic, signaling that mental health counselors are not alone in wanting to explore the positive impact that comics can have on delivery of services.
Case in point: The 2017 Comics & Medicine Conference was held this past June in Seattle. An eclectic cross section of cartoonists, medical doctors, mental health professionals, teachers, students and librarians from across the globe attended. The conference theme, “Access Points,” explored how comics can open new gateways to health care “because of its ability to provide a platform for marginalized voices.” Because this worldwide chorus of marginalized voices often includes people with mental health diagnoses and comorbid disorders, comics can also help bridge the gap between client and counselor when utilized correctly.
As the body of literature regarding the therapeutic value of comics grows, the question is raised: Can comics be used as an intervention apart from traditional bibliotherapy? The focus of this article is to explore the rationale for creating comics with clinical clients, gain guidance from practitioners who use comic creation as a direct intervention and provide resources for those who are interested in learning more.
In the fourth edition of the American Counseling Association’s Counseling Dictionary, the intervention bibliotherapy is defined as “generally understood to be the reading of selected literature to help individuals gain a better understanding of themselves and others as well as to produce at times a healing or helpful catharsis.”
The bulk of recent literature regarding comics and mental health has fallen squarely into the realm of bibliotherapy, focusing on using graphic novels and memoirs to help clients better understand their own challenges. Although strong clinical evidence exists to support using existing commercially available materials to help articulate client experiences, a growing number of health services practitioners are advocating that patients and clients begin writing and illustrating their own stories.
Ian Williams, a comics artist, writer and physician who co-founded the Graphic Medicine movement, has suggested that revisiting trauma using sequential art can provide a form of catharsis for the creator, citing examples of prominent figures in the graphic memoir field such as Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Katie Green (Lighter Than My Shadow). His assertion is that the combination of visual art and narrative structure allows clients to reauthor their experiences in ways that simply talking through them do not.
This same hypothesis was the driving force behind the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) using graphic novel software to assist combat veterans in dealing with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. This initiative led to DARPA commissioning California-based software developer Kinection to design the Warrior Stories Platform for use with veterans.
Similarly, several public schools across the country have begun using online comic-creation software to help address ongoing behavioral issues for children with special needs. In addition, educators and social science researchers alike are using comic creation to help children tackle difficult real-world issues (such as making positive choices in the face of peer pressure), develop a more robust understanding of historical events (such as the Holocaust) and cultivate sound safety habits when interacting with friends and strangers.
As professionals from a multitude of disciplines create comics with others to help bridge the gap between educational content and personal experience, clinical mental health counselors can do the same with their clients.
The therapeutic act of creating comics
Scott McCloud, renowned cartoonist and educator, once defined comics as “images deployed in a sequence to tell a story graphically or convey information.” Given that comics are a storytelling medium, it is perhaps not surprising that the therapeutic act of creating comics falls under the scope of narrative therapy.
Narrative therapy is primarily concerned with the stories that clients have within them — those internalized beliefs formed by clients’ interactions with the various familial, social and cultural forces throughout their lifetime. Narrative therapies also place primary emphasis on the act of externalization of client issues. As Michael White and David Epston, the primary developers of narrative therapy, once famously surmised, “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.”
Externalization is used to help clients who overidentify with their problematic symptoms (“I am depressed”) begin to understand these experiences as distinct from their core self (“I am dealing with a really difficult depressive episode right now”). When I interviewed Katharine Houpt, an artist, licensed clinical professional counselor, board certified art therapist and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she shared that the main strength of creating comics with clients is that it fosters the externalization process: “The idea is that experiences can be overwhelming and can take up so much space that it’s helpful to externalize them, and [creating comics] literally puts a container around those experiences so you can put them away on a shelf, so to speak, and [the problems] are separated from the person.”
Having a physical representation of an internal experience can be valuable because the idea of containment is extremely important when dealing with sensitive parts of a client’s experience. Each panel in the comic sequence functions as a figurative container for potentially overwhelming psychic material, allowing clients to approach the issue with a feeling of control or mastery that might elude them otherwise. The comic format also allows clients to represent themselves, others and even their disorders pictorially through the creation of avatars.
Working with clients to graphically depict interactions between themselves and problematic symptoms can help them uncover new insights. As with any other type of therapeutic intervention, it is important to choose comic-making directives that reflect an understanding of individual clients, their struggles and what resources they bring to the situation. “An example of something I’ve done recently is ask a client to create characters to have a dialogue based on the person’s conflicting thoughts when trying to make a decision,” Houpt says. “But again, this was done with careful consideration of the person’s history, possible responses, coping tools, motivation, ability, etc.”
Suggestions and considerations
Possessing a clear sense of best practices when creating comics (or any other type of art) with clients can help clinicians avoid therapeutic pitfalls and unintended confidentiality issues and create a safe space for the creative process. What follows are suggestions and considerations for therapists who are interested in beginning to integrate comic creation into clinical practice.
Create a functional space. Rebecca Bloom, a board-certified art therapist and licensed mental health counselor who practices in Washington state, suggested that clinicians try making art themselves in client spaces before introducing any interventions into practice. “I tell everyone that comes to my workshop, ‘Sit where the client will sit and try and make art in that spot.’ People inevitably come back and say, ‘Oh, well, it’s impossible to make art there.’ So I respond, ‘Great, now figure out how it would be more possible. Do the art supplies need to be closer? Do you need a lap desk? Do you need a coffee table that’s easy to use?’”
If the space available is not amenable for making art, this might require an investment in additional furniture that could be cost prohibitive. If an existing space and furnishings can be rearranged to accommodate the activity, it is also important to think through whether the space can remain in that configuration for clients who are not making art. If it can’t, it might be necessary to reserve time to reset the office between client sessions.
Remember, art is messy. Another consideration in determining whether a space is appropriate for incorporating any art making is whether the space is shared with other practitioners. “Art takes a little thinking through,” Bloom explained. “In some settings, it’s really hard, like for people who are in institutional settings. … Art is really messy. So, if there’s no way to be messy where you are, that’s going be a little problematic for art making.”
This holds true for comic creation too. India ink can be spilled, markers can be dropped onto couches, and erasers can leave behind rubberized crumbs. The reality of potential messes requires that practitioners be thoughtful about what materials they are willing to use during a session.
“Also, there need to be limits around time and mess,” Bloom said. “I stop the art-making process 10 minutes before the session ends because I want to make sure the people are back in their conscious process. I want to make sure we have time to clean up. [There are] materials that I don’t use. I don’t use paint in my office because it’s so easy to get out of control. I do spend money on fancy Copic markers with brush tips so you can have that experience of painting but without the mess.”
Invest in quality materials. Investing in quality materials will allow clients to stay focused on the therapeutic process instead of struggling to work with dried-out markers, inkless pens, stubby crayons or dull pencils. Additionally, having a selection of higher-grade media to choose from can signal clients that you are taking the art-making process seriously and being thoughtful about the materials with which you are asking them to work. “Clients can take a bad art-making experience personally,” Bloom observed.
Try it yourself first. Another common mistake clinicians sometimes make when using art directives during session is believing that instruction alone will inspire a client to make therapeutically meaningful art. “The only thing I hate for clients is when a therapist says, ‘Draw your darkest fear,’ and the client looks at them like, ‘You try that first. You try drawing your darkest fear,’” Bloom said. “You don’t want to ask anybody to do something that didn’t work for you, because you’re not going to be able to sell it very well, and you’re not going to be able to take care of somebody if it doesn’t go right. And you’re not going to understand the resistance in not wanting to do it.”
This also holds true for comic creation. If the counselor has never drawn a comic, then it will be difficult to understand client process from an artistic and therapeutic standpoint. One practice that can be helpful for therapists new to comic making is to try working with their own “daily comics journal.”
Kurt Shaffert, a fellow in applied cartooning at the Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, Vermont, endorsed this practice, acknowledging that he has used it himself. “The basic idea is to sit down every morning and draw a simple three- to four-panel cartoon that captures where you are in that moment,” he said. “It was very helpful for me when I was going through some difficult personal circumstances. And when I began sharing them with my friends and family, they began to have a better understanding of what was happening with me during
Houpt also uses the daily comics journal exercise to help temper the high emotions and excitement that can accompany working with comics. “I always emphasize the importance of pacing with clients,” Houpt said. “I think people can get really excited about comics and want to get really deep really fast. So something that I’ve done a lot with folks is ask them to keep a daily comics journal with just six panels per page. It puts a little bit of structure around it so that the experience doesn’t become overwhelming. And that practice has been really helpful for people to identify problems and solutions in their lives, to start recognizing themes, patterns and alternative stories about who they are through their personal artistic languages.”
There are also many opportunities for clinicians to gain firsthand experience with art therapy and comic-making interventions by utilizing local resources. Many art therapists, including those interviewed for this article, offer community-based workshops for clinicians and laypeople alike. Connecting with local therapists who regularly use art-based interventions can also provide valuable networking opportunities and potential ongoing clinical support as counselors begin to integrate art into their practice.
Read comics … and talk about them. If you are reading this article, chances are that you have some interest in the medium of comics, which exists apart from the therapeutic value of making comics. Exposing yourself to a wide range of commercially available comic books and graphic novels can help expand your understanding of what comics are — or ultimately can be.
Cultivating a broader understanding of what is considered a comic can help the therapeutic process in the long run. “I do find that I have to explain comics in many different ways to people,” Houpt said. “Sometimes I won’t call them comics. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘stories using words and pictures,’ or I will talk about something they might be familiar with, like the Sunday cartoons. … There’s all kinds of different interpretations. So, I just use that and make that part of the process of making comics with the client because, same as any other identifier about a person, it will mean a different thing to each individual.”
Talking with clients about their own beliefs regarding the medium can put them more at ease, which might allow them to experience greater gains from creating comics as part of the therapeutic process.
Be aware of the ethics regarding client art. There are additional ethical considerations that accompany counselors asking clients to make art for a therapeutic purpose. “I definitely think that all kinds of people can do some basic art therapy directives,” Bloom said. “I produce books that have those directives in them. Lots of people do. One of the major differences between people [who] are trained as art therapists and people who are not is what happens to the art after [it has] been made. It’s very common that people who are not trained as art therapists will put the art right up on the wall. Whereas art therapists believe that’s a private clinical conversation and that the client either takes that artwork home with them, or they keep it in the client’s file, or maybe the client destroys it. But it’s not up for public view.”
Another unintended consequence is that if a client walks into a room filled with client art, this might unknowingly set the expectation that all client art will be displayed, which can be problematic. As Bloom explains, “The idea within art therapy is that you might release something on the page that is unattractive that you don’t want anybody [else] to see. … If you go into an environment that has people’s art up on the walls, people will make less revealing art, most likely.”
Additionally, displaying client art might unintentionally create a false standard of how comic-making interventions “should look” for clients. Because some clients are more artistically inclined than others, certain clients might be reluctant — or even outright refuse — to create art because of insecurity around their abilities.
“I also like to talk with clients about what MK Czerwiec discusses in her chapter in the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, which is the ‘fourth-grade slump,’” Houpt says. “That’s the idea that before fourth grade, everybody raises their hand when the teacher asks, ‘Who in here is an artist?’ And then starting in fourth grade, everybody points to the one kid who draws the best. So, why do we do that to ourselves? Why should we limit this outlet for joy and expression in our lives just because we think we’re not the best at it?”
Allowing clients to create comics without the pressure of comparison is essential for therapeutic work to occur, and that should be the goal of any intervention used with clients. Counselors should also know that any art created during a therapy session receives the same protections under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that any other physical media (such as audio recordings and written materials) would.
It can be difficult for those who aren’t art therapists to begin working with a medium such as comics because the sheer amount of available materials can be overwhelming. The following list serves as a brief primer on texts that might be useful when beginning to integrate comic making into an existing practice. These recommendations were provided by the clinicians interviewed for this article and are grouped into separate categories for clarity.
General art therapy
- Art Is a Way of Knowing: A Guide to Self-Knowledge and Spiritual Fulfillment Through Creativity by Pat B. Allen
- Square the Circle: Art Therapy Workbook by Rebecca Bloom
- The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi
- Materials & Media in Art Therapy: Critical Understandings of Diverse Artistic Vocabularies by Catharine Moon
Comics and Cartooning
- Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti
- Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
- Cartooning: The Ultimate Character Design Book by Christopher Hart
- Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud
Although interest regarding the intersection of health services delivery and comics is at an all-time high, empirical research regarding the efficacy of comic creation as a direct intervention is largely absent. This might dissuade practitioners from introducing comic making into their therapeutic work, but it is important to remember that every testable intervention begins with a theoretical question, moves to the gathering of qualitative/anecdotal evidence and then transitions to quantitative outcome measurements.
This article has briefly addressed the narrative frame of comic creating while also sharing anecdotal insights from practitioners who use the intervention directly. The next step for helping make comic creation a more widely accepted and accessible intervention is to conduct rigorous research regarding outcomes. For social science researchers, these pursuits do not have to be conducted in isolation. That is reassuring for therapists such as Houpt: “I think that’s part of what was so exciting to me [about going] to the Comics & Medicine Conference this year. It was my first one. And to see people from so many different fields … different silos, who are doing similar work with different frameworks, different approaches, but arriving at similar outcomes. So, there has to be something there, and I wonder if part of the answer is more interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Devlyn McCreight is a licensed mental health counselor and owner of McCreight Psychotherapy & Clinical Consulting LLC. Contact him at devlyn@mccreightpsychotherapy or through his website at drdevlyn.com.
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