Tag Archives: Creativity


Behind the Book: The Creative Arts in Counseling

By Bethany Bray April 3, 2017

The power of creativity to spark change and progress in clients has fueled the growth of play therapy, wilderness therapy, animal-assisted therapy and other interventions in recent decades. But when Samuel Gladding first began to use creative approaches with clients in the 1970s, it was far from mainstream.

Gladding, a professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and past president of the American Counseling Association has made creativity a focal point of his storied career.

“Counseling is a profession that focuses on making human experience constructive, meaningful and enjoyable both on a preventive and on a remedial level,” Gladding writes in The Creative Arts in Counseling, of which ACA recently published a fifth edition. “It is like art in its emphasis on expressiveness, structure and uniqueness. It is also creative in its originality and its outcomes. Both are novel, practical and significant.”


Counseling Today sent Gladding some questions, via email, to learn more:


In your opinion, what makes the creative arts a “good fit” for counseling?

Counseling is a creative process. It is both an art and a science just like medicine. The ideal Holland Code for a counselor contains the artistic element as well as the social, enterprising and/or investigative code. As counselors we are always trying to figure out how we can help our clients solve or resolve a problem. The creative arts offer a number of ways to do this. For instance, we know from the research of James Pennebaker that writing about one’s stress on a regular basis has a way of alleviating that stress and promoting mental and physical health. We also know that moving, whether waltzing or walking, is incompatible with depression. Likewise, humor releases endorphins into the blood stream and helps elevate feelings. It may also add years to one’s life – as in the case of Norman Cousins who documented his use of humor and how it positively affected his life in Anatomy of an Illness.

Overall, the creative arts are a tool that counselors can use regardless of their theoretical orientation. They help clients work through the difficulties in their lives and learn how to be more resilient.


What would you want counselors to know about this topic, considering that creative approaches (dance and movement therapy, play therapy, etc.) have grown in popularity in recent decades? Are there any misconceptions or things to be aware of?

I would like counselors to know that the creative arts have been used to foster health and healing since ancient times. The creative arts help us maintain or regain balance in life. Furthermore, while there are only antidotal stories from earlier times, such as David playing the harp to calm King Saul or drama as a relief for depression in ancient Greece, there is a plethora of evidence research now that shows how the creative arts – music, movement, visual art, writing, humor, etc. – work in promoting emotional and physical wellness and well-being.

The creative arts are not a luxury. They are a necessity if we want our clients and ourselves to live productive and meaningful lives. Well-designed and significant scholarship on the power and potential of the creative arts in human life is abundant and important.

The creative arts are not a panacea for all the situations clients bring us. They can help clients gain insight, a new perspective and even make needed changes. However, before using the creative arts in counseling situations, counselors should read the research.


You write [in The Creative Arts and Counseling] that the creative arts “help to make clients more sensitive to themselves.” How so — can you elaborate?

Let’s take the visual arts as an example of how a creative art helps make clients more sensitive to themselves. It is impossible to paint or draw without recognizing after the process has been complete (and actually during the process) that you are representing your perception, feelings – and indeed yourself – on paper or canvas. Most of the creative arts are projective in nature and leave a trail or weave a story into a reality whether physically, as in the case of photography, or mentally, as in the case of movement (e.g., muscle memory). Once you experience yourself drawing, writing, dancing, acting, making music or getting involved in telling a story or creating humor, you can never be the same again. As in the case of Julius Caesar, you have crossed the Rubicon and the only way to go is forward.

Overall, the creative arts help people see and feel differently and become something they were not before. The process and sometimes the product involved in creating moves individuals forward in ways they may not have expected. In other cases, it makes dreams become tangible and sets up a new lifestyle for the person involved.


What advice would you give to a counselor who would like to introduce creative methods into their counseling practice but is unsure on how to get started?

For novice counselors who are unsure on how to get started in using creative methods in their counseling practices, I would recommend three things. First, join the Association for Creativity in Counseling (ACC), a division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). ACC produces a first rate journal edited by Thelma Duffey: the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.

Second, go to the conferences of ACC and ACA. Both have outstanding workshops by experienced professionals that can help counselors learn how to use creative methods appropriately.

Finally, read the books and research articles in the field that have a historical and practical significance. Look up research on creativity under Google Scholar or download videos that show what to do when and how. Also, attend webinars or summer courses on creativity in counseling that are offered on a number of platforms and at a number of counseling programs worldwide.


What prompted you to work on a fifth edition of this book? What’s new and different in this edition?

I was prompted to work on the fifth edition of The Creative Arts in Counseling because there is so much new in the field. The fourth edition had become dated. There is a lot that is different in the fifth edition but let me point out three. First, new research has been incorporated into the book and readers will find the latest information on how practitioners are using the creative arts and creative methods in their work.

Second, I have included a new chapter on animal-assisted therapy, horticultural therapy and nature or wilderness counseling. Creativity encompasses all aspects of life. Sometimes we compose, paint, or dance to find relief and be more productive. At other times, creativity is inspired from other living life forms. I worked at Pier 94 after Sept. 11, 2001. The therapy dogs there were a very meaningful part of my work as a counselor and I saw how they helped others in stress and distress. Thus, I wanted to include pet therapy in this edition of the book. I am also aware through the research and observation that many people find solace and peace through digging in the soil and growing plants or through communing with nature. Numerous studies show the power of the earth and nature to calm, enrich and inspire people while giving them solace and hope.

A third new aspect of the fifth edition is that I have included a chapter that contains all of the 121 exercises in the book, where they can be found in the text and how they can be used. This is a user-friendly chapter. It will help readers in locating information that they can incorporate in their counseling practices.


What makes you, personally, interested in and passionate about creativity in counseling?

The first five years of my counseling career were as clinician in a rural mental health center in North Carolina. I did not have wise, experienced mental health professionals to help guide me. Instead, I was one of a staff of five serving a population catchment area of 70,000. There was little time to receive supervision or even talk over cases. I used all of the theories and techniques I learned in graduate school but I found that on occasions that was not enough.

In the midst of this immersion into the mental health world, I noticed that clients often brought me pictures, poems, songs and other creative aspects of life that they thought were significant. While other clinicians saw these tangible ways of expressing emotions and thoughts as secondary, I did not. Clients were doing a lot of work on their own without a lot of knowledge about how it was helping them. It was important to recognize what they were doing for the power it had in their lives.

Unfortunately, there was not a lot of verifiable evidence on the uses of the creative arts then (This was the 1970s). However, I saw the potential of using creativity and the creative arts in improving the lives of individuals with whom I was working. Bob Dylan was singing: “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.” I realized I was in the midst of a time when the climate of mental health was changing and blowing in different directions. I was anxious to learn all I could about creativity and the creative arts. Thus, I saved up my money and attended every workshop I could on the subject, bought every book I became aware of and read journal articles in reputable periodicals. In the process, I discovered scholarship on creativity and the creative arts. I also uncovered a passion in myself to use the creative arts in the service of humanity.

The first edition of The Creative Arts in Counseling was published in 1992. ACA took a chance with me in publishing this book. Now creativity and the creative arts in counseling is considered mainstream. There is an abundance of scholarly articles and evidence-based practices on using creativity and the creative arts in counseling and, of course, thanks to Thelma Duffey and others there is an ACA division on creativity in mental health. I know from firsthand experience how creativity and the creative arts work in clinical settings. They are transformative. I am committed to helping other counselors learn about them too.

The creative arts are but one more tool in a counselor’s toolbox. They should be used thoughtfully and with care. They are like knives in that they have the power to help or hurt. That is why it is important to see the creative arts used in empowering, evidence-based and therapeutic ways.





The Creative Arts in Counseling, Fifth Edition is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.





Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



The Social Adventures and Experiments of  Tommy Joe Peterson

By Brandon S. Ballantyne February 7, 2017

The idea of this therapeutic short story is to creatively illustrate the various dilemmas that occur from the perspective of a socially awkward young man, Tommy Joe Peterson. Through the story, the reader is able to gain perspective on the thought process and problem-solving skills of this uniquely talented 11-year-old boy.

Whether this fictional story is read by a child or read to a child by a teacher or counselor, the discussion questions included at the end are aimed at facilitating reflection and interpersonal growth. I believe that discussing the responses to the discussion questions will allow for improved awareness and insight into real-life dilemmas and help children to improve their problem-solving skills in a creative, narrative manner.

The target population for my therapeutic short story consists of teachers, parents, therapists and children of elementary through middle school age, particularly those with a mental health diagnosis similar to or consistent with autism spectrum disorder or social anxiety.


Hello, my name is Tommy Joe. I am 11 years old. And in my mind, I am not just a boy. I am the world’s most coolest teenage superhero in my school. Well, at least I pretend to be.

Let me tell you about the time I almost saved my friend William from a flying plate of steaming hot lasagna in the cafeteria. Oh, and just so you know, William is only a few months younger than me. This is what happened …

The day started out just like any other day. I woke up at 6:37 a.m. I always wake up at that time to ensure that I get as many cartoons in as I can before I leave for school at exactly 8:02 a.m. I like the superhero cartoons. Batman is obviously the best, and I think I am like him in some ways. Although most adults say I am socially awkward, whatever that means. Clearly, they do not understand my abilities.

Anyway, after my cartoon time, my mother prompted me to participate in what she calls “activities of daily living.” She is a nurse, and I hear those types of phrases all the time. I have gotten used to it. This is the part of my morning routine during which I brush my teeth and comb through my brown wavy hair. I usually place some deodorant under each armpit, but not a lot. I typically do not like the texture, but I tolerate it enough to get at least a little bit of scent on me. Every good superhero needs a scent — at least that is what my mother tells me.

It was almost time to leave for school, so I slipped on my Velcro shoes and placed my bright red turtleneck on so it fit nice and snug, just the way I like it. I refuse to wear anything else but that red turtleneck. I feel most like a superhero in that shirt. Some people tease me for this. They clearly do not understand my abilities.

The bus ride to school is short. I live only four blocks from the school. And as a fifth-grader, riding the bus is the cool thing to do. On that day, the older kids were making fun of the way I was dressed. They always do. They also make fun of the way I only spray certain sections of my hair. You see, only some sections of my hair get messy, so there is no need to hairspray it all down. Only certain sections need a touch-up.

I do not think that the other kids understand my perspective. I don’t mind though. Life can be hard for a superhero like me. Clearly the other kids on the bus do not understand my abilities. And anything is better than riding to school with your parents, although my mother does listen to good music. But that is beside the point, and I do not want to ramble on, so let’s get back to the story of how I almost saved my friend William from an extremely steaming hot plate of lasagna.

I meet my friend William at the same spot every day before going into school. Every superhero needs a sidekick, and William is mine. William is shorter than me, and he refuses to be called Billy. He thinks that William is more formal, and he likes that. He has red curly hair and orange glasses. I do not really know where he got those glasses, but I like them. His glasses usually slip down to the end of his nose, and he has to spend most of the day adjusting and readjusting them. We have every class together. Every superhero needs a sidekick, and at least William understands my abilities.

The day was pretty boring until art class. It is like that every day. William and I count down the minutes leading up to our fourth-period art class. For us, it is more than just art class. It is a time for us to create new supercool superhero ideas. And on this day, the topic of class was “favorite transportation.” This was a perfect topic for superheroes like us.

William and I decided to create a spaceship. This was no ordinary spaceship. This was a supercool spaceship that William and I had imagined ourselves using to explore the outermost limits of our galaxy — beyond the black holes, red dwarfs, supernovas and solar flares.

By the way, space is my other supercool area of interest. William is mostly indifferent to the idea of space travel, but every superhero needs a sidekick, and because of that, I think he would come with me anyway. I guess the only problem would be if William gets motion sickness. I wonder if he gets sick in the car? To tell you the truth, I do not really know how William gets to school each day. I have never been in a car with him. Quite frankly, I only see him at school. Oh well, I do not want to ramble. Let’s get back to the story of how I almost saved William from an extremely overwhelming, steaming hot plate of lasagna in the school cafeteria.

Before describing the scene that would be about to take place in the cafeteria, it is important for me to be able to tell you how our art project turned out. William and I made a spaceship using cardboard, paint and a whole lot of glue. The spaceship was red, just like my turtleneck.

William is exceptionally good at folding cardboard, so I gave him the job of working on the wings. William attached long, narrow wings that seemed as if they would touch the ceiling. We carefully added glue to all the areas that needed to be held together, and then we added more glue, and then more glue, and then one last coating of glue to ensure that this spaceship could tolerate the astronomical elements that space travel would bring to the table. Every good astronaut needs a sidekick.

Our hands were sticky from the glue. It was hard for us to pull our fingers apart. But our spaceship was complete. William and I carefully placed the spaceship in our art closet to dry.

The bell rang for lunch. We hurried out of the classroom without cleaning up the rest of our materials. This was necessary because we need to get to lunch early so that we can sit at the table in the left corner — the one by the ice cream cooler. I like ice cream sandwiches, and it is important to be next to the cooler so that I can get two of them before they sell out. Every superhero needs his energy, and I just happen to get mine from ice cream sandwiches.

William prefers pizza, but they do not always have that. I once had the idea of putting my ice cream sandwiches on my pizza, but I have not been able to convince William to try it with me. And as a superhero, you need your sidekick to be on board before trying anything new. But that is for another story. Let’s get back to this one. I don’t want to ramble.

William and I entered the cafeteria and at a casual but fast pace assumed positions at our table by the ice cream cooler. The cafeteria was loud and chaotic as various students attempted to jockey for position in the lunch line. The teacher on duty was obviously struggling to keep order. I could tell by the look on her face. I did not have this teacher for class, but any good superhero can tell when another person is in obvious distress. I wish I could have helped her, but I needed to remain in position at my table.

This was partly due to the fact that the ice cream cooler is positioned just outside the kitchen, and as kids pass through the lunch line, they typically select their favorite ice cream product to complete their tray. William and I do it backward — we wait for a break in the line, and then we purchase our desserts first. Most kids do not think of going to the ice cream cooler first because it is positioned at the end of the line. Being the most supercool superhero that I am, I had developed this approach early last year. William agreed with me, although he typically does. William is a great sidekick.

The time was right. William and I stood up to go make our selection. I always purchase two ice cream sandwiches. William typically purchases the Italian ice. At least I think he does. Anyway, it was at that moment when we stood up that I began to notice an increase in chaos in the far right-hand side of the cafeteria. I quickly glanced over, and before picking out my ice cream, I noticed a food fight taking place. It was on the other side of the cafeteria, but it appeared as though it was escalating rapidly.

I needed to get my ice cream. I reached down and realized that I could not pull my fingers apart to grab it. Oh no, it was my worst nightmare. My fingers had been glued together from working on our spaceship in art class. It seemed that the harder I tried to pull them apart, the more they seemed to be glued together.

I had one dilemma with not being able to literally pick up my ice cream sandwich, and another dilemma with the rapidly growing food fight that was moving across the cafeteria like a tidal wave. I had to make a decision. I either needed to take cover and sacrifice my ice cream sandwich, or I needed to take the chance of being hit by food and attempt to grab my ice cream with my glued-together fingers. I had to think quickly.

At that moment, I noticed a red substance flying through the air toward William. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, so it was hard for me to tell what it was. But as it flew through the air, I realized that it was a piece of lasagna. It was hot. I could see the steam coming off of it as it whizzed past the heads of various students.

At this point, even the teachers were taking cover. Mr. Jones was under the table, and Ms. Sprockett was hiding behind the soda machine. The flying lasagna was coming our way, and based on my superhero calculations, it was heading directly toward William.

Everything was moving in slow motion. William was frozen in fear. He needed me. I quickly lunged in his direction and raised my hands in an attempt to take most of the blow from the flying lasagna. Every good superhero occasionally makes sacrifices for his sidekick — at least Batman did.

The only problem was that my fingers were still glued together. The lasagna not only hit my arms, covering me in sauce, but it also smothered William. He had sauce and cheese all over him. And the worst part of it was, I didn’t even get my ice cream sandwiches. The last thing I remember was William tasting the lasagna that was dripping off of his cheeks. William is always good at embracing chaos.

I guess even the best superheroes sometimes have trouble rescuing others. But William and I are still friends. He has forgiven me, and there are no hard feelings between us. I guess what I have learned from this situation is that every superhero needs a sidekick. I do not know what I would do without William. He is my best friend. But maybe next time, I won’t use so much glue.


Therapeutic discussion questions 

  • According to Tommy Joe, every superhero needs a sidekick. Who is the sidekick in your life? Who do you feel supported by? Who listens to you when you talk?
  • What makes someone a friend? What makes you a friend? What types of things do friends do for one another?
  • Discuss a difficult situation that a friend helped you with. What did they do to support you?
  • Discuss a difficult situation that you helped a friend with. What did you do to support them?
  • The glue on Tommy Joe’s fingers makes it difficult for him to rescue William and pick up his ice cream sandwiches. What should Tommy Joe have done prior to going into the cafeteria that would have made it easier for him to help William?
  • What is a goal you have in your life? What is an obstacle you face in your life? How can you plan ahead to make accomplishing your goal easier?
  • What can your sidekick do to help you reach your goal?
  • If you were Tommy Joe, what would you have done differently in the story? How would making different decisions have affected the outcome of the story?
  • Is there another way the story could have ended? If so, I would love to hear your version.




Brandon S. Ballantyne, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, has been practicing clinical counseling since 2007. He currently practices at Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Advanced Counseling and Research Services in Lancaster. He has experience working with both adolescent and adult clients struggling with moderate to severe depression and anxiety. He has facilitated many unique interventions and group modalities in the area of addressing relationship conflict and negative thought patterns. Contact him at ballantynebrandon@yahoo.com.

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Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Comic books as a bridge to healing

By Lauren Calhoun January 26, 2017

Comic books such as Batman, Superman and The Avengers have become a common language in our culture. People have been drawn to superheroes since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman — the first hero to go beyond normal human abilities — in Action Comics #1 in 1938. In 1939 in Detective Comics #27, we were introduced to Batman, a man shrouded in shadow and tragedy.

Characters such as Batman, Superman, Captain America, the Flash and many others were created when the world was enveloped in war. Japan had invaded China and, not long thereafter, Germany invaded Poland. These characters stood as symbols of hope and freedom during this time.

Today their names are known to almost everyone. With both DC (Detective Comics) Entertainment and Marvel Cinematic Universe releasing more and more movies every year, superheroes and the villains they battle have become an integral part of our culture. As reported by Comichron, comic book sales have grown consistently over the past four years, with 2015 seeing almost $2 billion in sales.

At one time, comic book stores were associated with children and stereotypical “nerds/geeks,” but that is no longer the case. Today if you visit a comic book store, you will see people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Comic books have become more diverse and applicable to a wider range of individuals, meaning almost anyone can find a character or story that they relate to, as well as meaning attached to that character or story.

Comic books can also help communities to heal. For example, the comic book Love is Love, a joint venture between DC Comics and IDW Publishing, benefits the victims of the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. Marc Andreyko, a comic book writer, organized the project, with all proceeds going to survivors and the victims’ families.


The impact of stories

Comic books can have a profound impact on those who read them, offering more than just an escape from our lives. Jonathan Gottschall, author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, states that stories change us at the emotional, behavioral and psychological level.

The superheroes found in comic books are our personification; they are who we strive to be. Like us, superheroes are complex and have a broad range of emotions. They go through challenges and obstacles, just like we do.

Comic books also tackle difficult issues such as racism and bigotry, war, envy, friendship and the individual’s sense of responsibility. Characters such as the X-Men are feared and hated for being born “different.” They are forced to register and are even hunted. Such issues can be applied to many minority members of our society, especially in today’s political climate.

Comic books have become more diverse, with African American male superheroes such as Sam Wilson (Falcon), Luke Cage and T’Challa (the Black Panther), as well as Miles Morales (Spider-Man), a male of black and Latino descent. Comics are also becoming more female driven. The new “Iron Man” is actually a 15-year-old African American female, Riri Williams, who is a genius. The new Thor, wielding the hammer Mjölnir, is also a woman, Jane Foster. This comic book was controversial because Foster is not called “Lady Thor” or some other female version of the name. Instead, she is Thor, and she is worthy of the mantle.

Marvel Now: Ms. Marvel introduces a new Ms. Marvel — Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager girl from Jersey City. It is a typical origin story but also deals with the challenges of a Muslim girl who is struggling with acculturation, wanting to be a “typical” Western girl and being in a traditional home. Kamala’s story applies to those who may feel different, not belonging to either culture, and may help those going through the process of acculturation.

Comic books have also become more inclusive in the portrayal of LGBTQ characters: Batwoman, Green Lantern (Alan Scott) and Iceman identify as gay; Catwoman, Harley Quinn and John Constantine identify as bisexual; Lord Fanny identifies as transgender; and Mystique from X-Men identifies as sexually fluid and gender-fluid. With so many diverse characters available in comic books, counselors can find meaningful characters for their clients.

Characters such as Batman and Superman serve as our modern-day folktales and myths. Batman is a human being just like us. He goes through adversity and challenges, he bleeds and can be broken, but he chooses to rise above those challenges to fight the darkness and the villains. He inspires by declaring that we have a choice in how we respond to tragedy. Batman (Bruce Wayne) lost his parents at a young age when they were murdered in front of him. Instead of letting that event destroy him, or simply wasting his inheritance, he makes a choice to overcome and vows to stop the monsters.

Like Batman, Batgirl possesses no superhuman powers. Unlike Batman, she is from a modest home. In New 52 Batgirl by Gail Simone, Batgirl has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She was shot in the spine by the Joker and was paralyzed, but she overcame this trauma and continued to help people even when she was hurt. She continues to fight her PTSD and fight for good.

As Gotham Chopra, co-author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, states in the documentary Legends of the Knight, characters such as Batman are archetypal aspirations that we have pursued throughout time. Comic books are stories that can help our clients reach new insights about themselves and their challenges. Although we may not wear capes, we all have the capacity to choose, to overcome and to help our communities. Superheroes provide us with the ability to see that we can make a positive impact and strive toward being better versions of ourselves.


Applications in counseling

Comic books can help clients who are uncomfortable with counseling to become more comfortable with the process. Comic books can also provide a “safe” way for clients who have difficulty talking about themselves (especially younger clients) to discuss their lives. Comic book characters can aid in self-awareness and provide a connection to the self.

The use of comics in counseling does not need to be limited to working with children. With the help of Comicspedia, created by psychology professor Patrick O’Connor, those new to the comic book world can find comic books that deal with specific issues from grief and loss to LGBTQ issues. Certain clients may already have an interest in a particular character; the Comicspedia website can aid counselors in finding books to apply.

I believe that comic books can be implemented into counseling in multiple ways and multiple settings, from individual therapy to group therapy. Comic books can be used as bibliotherapy. Comic books are stories, and stories have the power to affect us on a deep level. They have the power to become a part of us.

Bibliotherapy can be applied by assigning specific issues for the client to read and reflect on. The stories can be then processed in the counseling session. Comics can give clients the ability to read about themes that they connect to and can help them open up in ways that they didn’t think possible. The stories in comic books can also demonstrate the application of moral courage and resiliency and choosing to make a positive change. When connected to our clients’ stories, this can help them feel that they also possess the ability to make positive changes.

Comics can also be used as a form of narrative therapy by having clients create their own comic or even adding panels to existing books.


A group approach

Comics can be used in individual and group counseling. I created a group titled (for billing purposes) “self-exploration of values and beliefs through narrative therapy.” In this group, we explored not only personal values and beliefs but also issues that clients were having with their diagnoses, problems with grief and loss, and issues of feeling different. Group members explored their stories in the creation of their comic books.

The group was made up of adults ages 18 years and older in a mental health community setting. The clients had been diagnosed with long-term mental disorders ranging from major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia.

In the group, I utilized comic books such as Batman and Robin: Requiem for Damian by Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz. This remarkable book depicts the journey of grief and loss. With the death of his son Damian, Bruce Wayne/Batman grieves. This book features no dialogue — only illustrations — and is incredibly impactful.

In a counseling setting, clients used this comic book to identify the different “stages” of grief and loss and process when they had experienced something similar. In conjunction with narrative therapy, clients then added a page in which they talked to Bruce Wayne or Batman about the loss. This activity allowed the clients to step outside of themselves. Many shared “advice” with Bruce/Batman; they were truly giving advice to themselves.

Near the end of the group sessions, the participants created their own comic books. They were free to choose any issue or problem they were facing and create a narrative around it. One client turned her mental illness into an actual being — a villain — that she was battling and highlighted the messages she hears about her disorder. This client found the activity empowering, allowing her to turn something that she struggled with internally into something external that she could then “fight.”

Another client dealt with his grief and loss of loved ones in his comic. A third client used her comic to address past trauma by confronting her abusers. The comic book format allowed her to do this in a safe way that provided meaning for her.

There is little research on comic books and even less on their application in a counseling setting. However, I believe them to be a potentially rich resource that counselors should consider.





Lauren Calhoun is a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago Campus. She has a master’s in counseling psychology and currently works as a crisis counselor at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ Project Impact and Welcoming Center. Contact her at Lec6725@ego.thechicagoschool.edu




Related reading from the Counseling Today archives: “Geek therapy: Connecting with clients through comics, video games and other ‘geeky’ pursuits




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



Ask your doctor if nature is right for you

By Bethany Bray January 3, 2017

Happy-looking people take a walk in the woods as small-print disclosures scroll across the bottom of the TV screen and a soothing voiceover explains possible side effects. As the scene closes, one of the actors looks squarely into the camera and says, “Ask your doctor if nature is right for you.”

The tongue-in-cheek NatureRx video campaign has the look and feel of the prescription drug commercials that inundate television in the U.S. The difference, however, is that they are “selling” something that is widely available and has proved to benefit mental health and overall well-being — without prescription drugs.

NatureRx is the brainchild of Justin Bogardus, a filmmaker and licensed professional counselor candidate in Boulder, Colorado. Everything seems to have a marketing campaign in this modern age, he says, so why not nature?

Rather than relying on a heavy-handed “you should” directive, the films use humor and a witty message to emphasize the benefits of getting outside, Bogardus explains.

“As a trained counselor myself [but primarily a filmmaker now],” he says, “I really wanted to create a message like NatureRx because I resonated with it so much personally. … I think people really resonate with the message and the humor because it’s fun, funny and inspiring to remember the little things that were always there, but sometimes we forgot about them, like nature and getting outdoors.”

NatureRx “commercials” have been screened at film festivals and shared widely online since the

Justin Bogardus, NatureRx filmmaker (Courtesy photo)

first video was released in the summer of 2015.

Bogardus has a film degree from Vassar College and has worked as an editor, writer and producer for several documentaries on wrongful conviction/incarceration. In 2013, he completed a master’s degree in Buddhist psychology and contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Boulder. Although he primarily devotes his time to independent filmmaking and speaking engagements, he does occasionally see clients, lead group therapy and teach Buddhist psychology at Naropa.



Is NatureRx right for you? CT Online contacted Bogardus to learn more about the campaign and its connection to counseling and mental health.


The holiday season can be especially tough for people with anxiety and other mental health issues. At the same time, the weather is getting colder and the days are shorter and darker. Do you have suggestions on how to find “NatureRx” throughout the winter?

Research shows [that] as little as 10 minutes outdoors can reset the nervous system, especially if you can be mindful and present with nature for those 10 minutes. … Taking a walk and tasting the cold brisk air makes a big difference even in small doses.

I get asked about winter a lot in regards to NatureRx, and I love that question. I love winter. The outdoors seems particularly tranquil and quiet to me in the winter. There are no studies about this, but I actually think the positive impact of nature on our minds happens faster in winter. Something about a little temperature change and a change of scenery from the indoors in winter really resets my mind and body pretty quickly. Yes, it can be a little harder to motivate putting on jackets and boots when it’s cold and the sun sets so much earlier, but the colder air is more refreshing, I think. I also like to remember that our bodies were built for the outdoors, including the cold weather.

I also love this thing from Denmark called hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Everyone knows how cold and dark winters in Denmark are, and the Danes have come up with a great word and lifestyle to make the most of it. It’s basically the idea of cultivating coziness, slowing down and taking in simple pleasures. It’s like NatureRx for the indoors.

I like that with the idea of hygge, you bring an overall sense of coziness to the winter and holiday season, which you bring with you both outdoors and inside. A 10-minute walk in the cold air, all bundled up in all the scarves, mittens, hats, puffy coats — whatever makes being outside a slowing down and cozy experience too. How great is a warm fire and hot cup of tea after a short dose of outdoors? How cozy and relaxing is that? So yes, back and forth with outdoors and the family, back and forth with getting warm and then getting refreshed outside with an overall sense of hygge. That’s a perfect recipe for the holiday season I think.

During holiday get-togethers, people and families can go stir crazy if no one is getting outside. Togetherness is great, but too much togetherness in an enclosed space is well … cue the commercial … “are you feeling tired, irritable [and] stressed out?” Who isn’t feeling tired, irritable and stressed out at some point during the holiday season? That’s the cue for a dose of nature, even a microdose. It really works and so does hygge.

NatureRx has been a lifesaver for me during the holidays. Now it’s fun because as I get outdoors for short breaks during each holiday season, the rest of my family has started doing it too. … Maybe they saw how happy and relaxed I was after a little time outside.


What do you want professional counselors to know about nature’s connection to wellness and mental health?

I like to remind even the most self-described “I would rather do anything besides camping” indoor people that it’s all about discovering the dose of nature that works for you. [Moving] more plants inside or gardening, or having a great view of the outdoors from a window, whatever brings nature into your life in a way you like, I think, can support our well-being [and] slowing down, which is incredibly helpful, especially in [the] busy, screen-time, information-overload, never-stop-world so many of us are meeting these days.

I once met this great group counselor in New York City — a real expert and guru of counseling. I was telling him how I like to get outside and to meditate. He told me, “Getting outside and meditation are like rocket fuel for healing in therapy.” I think that’s the best way to put it. NatureRx helps on its own and in conjunction with all the others things we need for rich, healthy lives.

Yes, there’s a new big study from big-name institutions almost every week it seems about the positive impacts of the outdoors and nature on all kinds of well-being metrics, especially mental health for all kinds of symptoms and challenges [and] for healthy development of kids. But really I think NatureRx got millions of views and has made such a splash because on a deep intuitive level, we already know this. The healing impact of nature is a story as old as humanity itself.

Being outside in nature supports our well-being. Of course it’s not a panacea. It’s not a cure-all. But who knows? For some people it might be. I think it’s like good rest. It’s something we all know on some level is needed and super helpful for whatever life throws at us. And like good rest, you don’t want to overdo it or go outside with too much of an agenda, expecting nature to fix everything. Nature doesn’t work that way, but if you can hang back a little in nature, let its beneficial impact come to you more and more … it works! I could go on and on. The magic always happens eventually.

Since the dawn of human civilization, we [have] lived increasingly in busier spaces. Every culture and every civilization from every time period has countless stories about the need for nature — a respite and restorative space to not only heal, but find your truer and deeper voice in. NatureRx is that same story, updated for our times. I think nature is a timeless space, a great place to discover your authenticity and who we really are — outside the din and distraction of culture and civilization.


Do you have suggestions for how counselors can bring nature into their work with clients?

Well, first have clients watch the NatureRx commercial. Self-promotion? Maybe, but really it’s true. First-time viewers love the humor and then love sharing the videos with other folks — it just resonates with so many people. That was certainly part of the goal with NatureRx and the humor behind it. I didn’t want to prescribe nature and getting outside as a “should.” I wanted to playfully invite people to look at getting outside and nature from a fresh perspective, and of course spoofing a prescription commercial was the way to do that.

So for counselors of all kinds, I say … find ways to invite people into thinking about nature and getting outdoors as a fun, healing space rather than imposing the idea on them in subtle or not so subtle ways. I think [it’s] always good to start with some curiosity, asking people questions about nature, [such as] plants or places they may like. It seems almost everyone has some memory or some animal or plant or some outdoor smell or nature activity they already remember or enjoy. I think that’s a great starting point. Later on, it can also be good to offer some of the evidence-based information about getting outdoors, which some people like to know because it can increase their time outdoors and their perceived benefit from nature. But some folks don’t even need that didactic information.

I’m amazed how many folks already have some NatureRx practice in their life without even realizing they’re intuitively getting benefit from nature — even smokers I meet. Many smokers talk about enjoying the break outdoors as part of their smoking habit. It’s interesting how many, when they quit, still like to get outside, but this time just for a short walk or to sip a cup of tea or something. What they didn’t think about was how smoking was a tool to take a break outside, even in the cold. Without the cigarette, they still get to benefit from getting outside with a lot more enjoyment.

I met a woman I’ll never forget who liked to check the weather for the sunset time. She rarely ever watched the sunset. She just found herself always checking in on what time the sun would set. She didn’t care too much for camping or the outdoors; she would never describe herself as a nature person. I worked with her some, and we talked about what she liked about the sunset and knowing the rhythms of the sunrise and sunset from season to season. Before long, she told me she had started to actually take the time, even if it was just five minutes toward the end of the workday, to not only check the sunset time, but take some time outside to really enjoy watching the sunset. Simple. Relaxing. Restorative. I’m pretty sure she still does that today and loves it.


Who is your target audience for the NatureRx campaign?

When first creating the NatureRx commercials and the NatureRx movement online, I intended to target millennials with the humor and the particular disconnection millennials might feel around nature. It’s the first generation that may not have been exposed to the outdoors readily as kids and, consequently, that millennial generation — which I’m a part of, but on the older side — may feel that lack of nature more acutely.

I grew up in the city myself. I was lucky to have a father who took the time to take us to national parks and [go] hiking. That’s probably how I first fell in love with nature. But I had a lot of city friends who didn’t get those experiences growing up, and I always imagined those lifelong friends and what might appeal to them when crafting this message and writing NatureRx content. The millennial generation is so used to getting tons of information on their laptops and phones all the time, so certainly it was an important goal of mine in creating NatureRx to craft a fun-filled message that could connect with them in short form and on social media in a way that they could really enjoy and consider.

It’s food for thought for any age — even kids love our G rated versions of the commercials. It’s something we can all relate to.


Do you think medical and mental health professionals sometimes overlook nature and its therapeutic benefits?

Yes and no. I think the medical and mental health professions as a whole have some real ambivalence about nature and the outdoors. [But] I think a lot of that’s changing now as we see the alternative — being inside, disconnected and sequestered, and how that is having terrible health and well-being impacts on our bodies and minds. I think there’s a big shift in medical and mental health professionals around embracing the benefits of nature and getting outdoors because of this.

I think all this research coming out about the benefits of getting outdoors reveals this movement and paradigm shift. For the last few decades in medicine, culture and in parenting, the view was [that] getting outside and in nature is how you get sick or hurt. I think lots of folks are seeing now how wrong that view is.


In a nutshell, what inspired you to start the NatureRx campaign?

Nutshell? I love nutshells. That was a big inspiration. That and climate change. I wondered, how could I speak about the human relationship to nature in a way that connected with people personally, whether they believe in human-caused climate change or not? I don’t say anything about climate change in the commercials, but I think it’s in there nonetheless.

I was inspired by how nature is something I need in my personal life. It’s helped me in countless ways, and nature is something we all need as a valuable space for all earthly inhabitants. I hoped the message and humor would convey that — both the personal and universal value of nature. It was a way of giving back for me.


What do you want professional counselors to know about why your campaign is needed?

As a trained counselor myself, I like this phrase: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt.” For professional counselors, I think NatureRx is needed because there are many paths to healing and recovery for clients. I think it’s also true to make sure some of those paths are made of dirt. A dirt path in the woods is the real-life metaphor we can experience at anytime. It’s a great ready-at-hand place where we can see that natural healing isn’t like a manicured superhighway to health. There are twists and turns.

Getting outside reminds me of my most human qualities. It reminds me that I have a body that likes to be in nature, to look at nature and be healthy. It reminds me to take time to just be. I think that’s the energizing trail mix we all need on whatever path we’re taking in life. That’s the need I hope NatureRx fills. It’s an empowering message about how you can take back your life at any point by simply stepping outdoors. I think healing and counseling works well when people feel empowered with real solutions, and getting outdoors is most certainly one of those solutions.





Find out more about NatureRx and watch Bogardus’ TED Talk at Nature-Rx.org

The NatureRx “commercials” are available there as well as on the YouTube channel: bit.ly/2h1MCZp





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


The Counseling Connoisseur: Nature-informed counseling for children

By Cheryl Fisher October 13, 2016

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy” — from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein




I recently returned from a wonderful week in Nova Scotia featuring painted clapboard cottages against blue skies and a seascape of majestic hills and swirling tides. With a history rich in forts, fur trades and complex propriety, Nova Scotia also affords miles of pristine trails for the avid (and not so avid) hiker.

On one such hike, I ventured up Cape Split, which offered a spectacular view of the Bay of Fundy following a two-hour uphill jaunt. The inland path was lush with evergreen and paved in centuries-old rocks. Snarled roots from ancient maples protruded from the narrow trail, and patches of mud provided slippery terrain. At times the trail seemed endless and unforgiving. However, just at that moment when body and morale were failing, the forest opened to a grassy knoll that blanketed the age-old rock formation overlooking the (now) returning six-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Damp with perspiration from navigating the trail, we sat down and unloaded our backpacks, laying out a feast before us of lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade. The cool breeze from the bay mingled with the warmth from the sun. In that moment, I was sure there was nothing sweeter than communion with nature and the physical and emotional exertion and spiritual nourishment it afforded.


Camps and communion

For many children (and their excited parents), the end of summer signifies a return to school, studies and schedules. It is a time when we bid farewell to the lackadaisical whimsy of carefree days. Summer memories of camps, cookouts and canoes fade, making way for the cooler activities of autumn. However, for many children, summer camp did not include nature hikes, bonfires or kayaking; it involved indoor activities centered around a theme such as weight management, music acquisition or computer skills.

photo-1447875372440-4037e6fae95dResearch suggests that connecting to nature can result in reduced stress, increased energy, improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain, and accelerated healing from injuries and surgery. In particular, Peter Kahn and Stephen Kellert have argued that “a child’s experience of nature exerts a crucial and irreplaceable effect on physical, cognitive and emotional development.”

Yet modern living has insulated us from the positive ionic exchange between grass, trees, river and sky, resulting in a physical, psychological and often spiritual connection from the Earth and her creatures. According to researcher and therapist Martin Jordan in his book Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces, this detachment is associated with a variety of dis-ease, including epidemic rates of obesity and depression.

Richard Louv, author and founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to refer to a generation of children who no longer spend time outdoors hiking, camping and otherwise interacting with the natural world. Direct contact with nature appears to benefit children physically, emotionally and spiritually.



Interacting with natural elements provides a varied and complex terrain and physical stimulation for children. Negotiating inclining hills or slippery declines, catching and releasing tadpoles or crickets, and chasing butterflies, for example, create opportunities for skill-building in a variety of areas, including large and fine motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination. Most people can remember the challenge of a new skill … and the thrill of successful mastery.


Emotional and cognitive

According to Kahn and Kellert, a child’s experience of nature “encompasses a wide variety of emotions” and an “unfailing source of stimulation.” I remember the awe and wonder I experienced when my childhood naturalist neighbors taught me how to look for the tiny green caterpillars grazing on the cabbage leaves in the garden; then observing their transformation as they ate their way to chrysalises; and the unbearable waiting and waiting until these dormant creatures emerged into beautiful white butterflies.

More recently, I ventured into raising the threatened monarch butterfly. Still with the curiosity of a child, I planted my milkweed, purchased my microscopic caterpillars and watched in amazement as larvae transformed into J’s hanging from the top of my butterfly shelter. Sadly, a virus attacked my precious guests and killed each before they could take their first flight. I experienced genuine grief over this loss.



Nature provides endless teaching opportunities around issues of moral conscience. Kellert identified nine values of the natural world:

  • Aesthetic: Physically appealing
  • Dominionistic: Mastery or control over nature
  • Humanistic: Emotional bonding with nature
  • Moralistic: Ethical or spiritual connection to nature
  • Naturalistic: Exploration of nature
  • Negativistic: Fear and aversion of nature
  • Scientific: Knowledge and understanding of nature
  • Symbolic: Nature as a source of language and imagination
  • Utilitarian: Nature as a source of material and physical reward These values tend to emerge in a developmental manner, generally shifting from more self-centered, egotistical values to more social and other-centered values.


Nature-informed counseling

Nature-informed counseling refers to a vast array of scientifically based psychological therapies that use nature in clinical practice. Among the foundational assumptions of nature-informed counseling are that we are not machines; we are human beings who are sensual, curious and creative. We are interdependent with the full ecosystem in which we reside.

Furthermore, ecotherapy is an organic model of care that tends to the whole relationship between humans and the other-than-human. Here are several ways to incorporate nature-informed methods into your counseling practice:

1) Animal-assisted therapy: I am fortunate to be able to bring my goldendoodles to my office to be co-therapists. However, in addition to dogs, there are other smaller pets that may work more easily in your practice. For example, I had a betta fish (who was named Olive by a client) that I used with clients. Or place a bird feeder outside your window (if you are fortunate enough to have a window).

2) Horticulture therapy: There are numerous ways to integrate plants in a therapeutic manner. Have clients plant seeds and tend to their care. Or keep small pots of herbs in your office, providing an opportunity to explore aromatherapy. It is a wonderful release to pinch off a bit of rosemary, mint or thyme and inhale the calming, soothing or energizing fragrance.

3) Wilderness therapy: I have used “kayak therapy” with trauma survivors with great success. However, you may not work in a community with easy water access or even know how to kayak. Therefore, your wilderness approach might be more in line with taking clients on a walk on a trail or observing wildlife with them in a nearby lake or pond.

You can also co-create homework around nature walks. For example, I was working with a couple who seemed stuck, so I asked them to go for a walk together (without talking) and collect items along the way that reminded them of their marriage. When they returned to my office, they emptied their treasures, which included a rock (“that used to be how I saw our marriage”), a feather (“we are drifting away”) and a few twigs (“we have roots still”). After a discussion centered around the items gathered, I had the couple finish the session by using the items to create a sculpture that reflected the relationship they wanted to craft.

4) Other ideas:

  • Assess your clients’ relationship with nature. Where is their “happy place”? How often does they get to visit it? Where are their favorite memories housed?
  • Invite a family with which you are working to spend the night in a tent in the backyard and reflect on this experience in session.
  • Teach cloud spotting. Teaching clients mindfulness takes on a fun twist as you lie on your back and gaze at the ever-changing cloud formations.
  • Use transitional objects. I keep a box in my office filled with seashells, sea glass and rocks lovingly collected by my own mother when she walks the beach. I use these as transitional objects when clients might benefit from imprinting an image or experience to an object that they can carry in their pockets or purses throughout the day.


Ethical consideration

As with all forms of practice, ethical standards must be followed to avoid harm and litigation. So what are the ethical considerations when utilizing the wisdom of nature in psychotherapy? This depends on the extent and type of nature-informed therapy you are using. For example, the ethical guidelines for hiking a trail with a client may look a bit different than the guidelines forphoto-1469440317162-d9798b137445 planting a sunflower seed and tending to it as metaphor for self-care and growth. However, in general the following issues must be addressed.

1) Do all parties feel physically and emotionally safe? Although you may thrive sitting in a field of poppies, your client may possess strong allergies to flower pollen that render therapy outdoors a physically uncomfortable experience. In addition to allergies, the client may exhibit phobias around the outdoors that need to be understood and appeased. Temperature and air quality may also be variables to consider.

2) Framing the relationship. For some therapists and clients, an office space with a designated chair arrangement signifies a professional relationship and the tasks that will ensue. A client may feel uncomfortable with the more lax and familiar atmosphere of sitting cross-legged on a hollow log while disclosing current therapeutic issues. Trading leather chair for log stump may alter the relationship in ways that prove unsettling for either the client or the therapist.

3) Is it confidentiality compliant? I have clients who love taking a walk during therapy. Some lament that it is the only time they have for physical activity. However, if we are walking in a heavily populated area, their confidentiality may be at risk. At the same time, an area that is too isolated may not be prudent should an emergency situation arise.

4) Get appropriate training. If you do not know how to kayak, taking clients on a wilderness kayak expedition probably isn’t wise. Always get training before using any modality in therapy.

5) Informed consent. It is always prudent to have clients sign an informed consent form that stipulates the possible risks and benefits of any therapy used in session. Therefore, a specific consent form that addresses the specific type of nature-informed therapy — including possible benefits and risks — needs to be explained and signed prior to taking that walk in the woods or a stroll in the garden during session.



Nature provides endless opportunities for metaphors, messages and meaning construction. Incorporating nature-informed approaches into our practices is not only creative but also clinically sound. It is as easy as taking the time to reflect on the sights, sounds, and smells just outside the door.




For more information:

  • Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (2009)
  • Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces by Martin Jordan (2014)
  • Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations by Peter H. Kahn and Stephen R. Kellert (2002)
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2008)



Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.







Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.