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Addicted to Art

Art therapy harnesses literacy and the written word to help with the recovery process.

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter D for “Drug Abuse”.

A painting classroom. Photo by Flickr user San Sharma


In a London classroom, a group of recovering addicts are doing something they haven’t done in years: Writing an essay. As they work through a creative writing assignment offered by the non-profit Action on Addiction, their focus is on being better parents, partners, friends, and co-workers. The idea is simple: Literacy, and creative writing and reading assignments, can play a crucial role in helping addicts on the road to sobriety.

Action on Addiction is a British non-profit organization that specializes in what is called “art therapy”--the idea that art creation can be used to help individuals recover from addiction. Art therapy, however, isn’t just about drawing and painting. At many service providers, including Action on Addiction, art therapy harnesses literacy and the written word to help with the recovery process.

By considering creative writing as part of the larger art therapy process, Action to Addiction is able to offer more varied workshops to their clients. By helping patients with addictions connect with deeper feelings that might not be on the surface, these therapies can increase self-esteem and offer opportunities to develop happier emotional patterns. Done right, creative writing can create an ability to relax and process the world without drugs or alcohol.

For instance, Writopia Lab is a non-profit which provides therapeutic writing workshops to seriously-ill children in places like the Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York and at psychiatric treatment facilities for mentally ill teenagers.

Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Writopia’s founding executive director, says that “There’s a tremendous healing power in writing fiction because sometimes you don’t want to dig directly into what you went through. Maybe there’s deep trauma, or you haven’t figured it out yet, but you can write fiction that draws on what you’ve been through. Through that character, a therapist can work with you because you can answer all sorts of questions for the character that can help give the therapist insight into you.” Non-fiction writing formats such as memoirs, she adds, can also help process and understand these issues.

A major part of creative writing therapy centers on using the power of literacy and the written word to treat the underlying mental health issues which coexist with addiction. Nicole Amesbury, LMHC and the head of clinical development at Talkspace, an online therapy company, says that writing therapy can include “highly-structured therapeutic processes, such as the writing interventions used in cognitive processing therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. The process of writing can be therapeutic because it allows a person to express their thoughts and feelings and then observe them and reflect on them. This can give people valuable awareness and insight.”

There are also documented results for art therapy and writing therapy. In the United States, creative writing therapy has been integrated into healing arts programs for returning veterans with PTSD at the Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir military hospitals. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that creative writing is a routine part of the art therapy program at many institutions as well.

At Action on Addiction’s workshops, patients take part in reading and writing assignments and therapeutic creative writing, along with visual art workshops. Integrating literacy-based rehabilitation efforts into the larger clinical process offers enhanced results for Action on Addiction.

Celine Elise Alvarez, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist, notes that “Letter writing and creative writing allows disenfranchised parts of ourselves to have a voice. It allows the person to express themselves in ways that they can not when speaking because there is a filter. When you are in the process of writing, the unconscious just flows allowing you to access thoughts, emotions and experiences that you would not normally talk about. It can help a person gain insight, release old beliefs and connect with themselves in a deep emotional way.”

For Action on Addiction and other organizations using writing therapy and literacy treatments to help with longstanding addiction and mental health issues, the written word offers a pathway to improving clients’ lives. Putting pen to paper allows their clients to understand themselves more, and continue on the path to much-improved circumstances.

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