Healing through Art Therapy at Lava Heights Academy

From the Outside, In

Lava Heights Academy

Although art therapy has been around for nearly a century, science is only beginning to understand its healing powers. Researchers like Dr. Semir Zeki (University College London) are studying what happens in the brain during artistic expression through neuro imaging. In one study Zeki observed brain function while participants looked at paintings by major artists (like Monet) and observed increased blood flow to the brain by as much as ten percent, comparable to looking at someone we love.

If art enhances brain function, how does it impact mental health? Art therapist and researcher Dr. Kaimal Giriga (Drexel University) confirmed lowered cortisol levels (tested in saliva) after research subjects had completed an art therapy session. “Art therapists can channel maladaptive or dangerous instincts into creative products that allow clients to communicate and work through difficult thoughts and complex emotions,” says Giriga.

Finding the art that heals begins on day one at Lava Heights Academy, a residential treatment program in Utah. Talent isn’t necessary for students to experience the benefits of art as therapy. During intake girls are asked to share their experience and interest in the arts and which mediums they’d like to try.

Lava Heights therapists and teachers combine traditional education with expressive therapy—through painting, drama, or dance—as a tool for healing and empowerment. This includes a daily schedule where students have an hour of art-focused group therapy each day as well as individual art therapy with a clinician. They also have the option of individual studio time each week to work on their projects.

Therapy also integrates the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, and Dr. Peter Levine, the pioneer in Somatic Experiencing (body-mind therapy). Expressive therapies in art, drama, and dance allow youth to process emotions from the outside in, using their bodies as part of an active and experiential healing process.

“Emotions live inside our bodies,” explains Anna Beck, a registered drama therapist at Lava Heights. “We need to befriend our bodies and use them as part of the process to rewire our brains.”

Beck incorporates a lot of movement into her classes and always asks her students, “Where do you feel these emotions in your body?” The drama classes also use improv to practice the positive skills youth are learning.

“All art forms create a container to process trauma,” explains Beck. “But theater is a laboratory where they can try emotions and movements in a low-risk environment.”

Art can also help explain personal experience and tell the story of trauma, which is empowering for the artist. Art imparts a deeper understanding to both creator and witness. As students work on individual and collaborative pieces to tell their stories in different ways, they find strength, belonging, and empowerment.

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

— Pablo Picasso

This article was originally written as an article in our 2023 Rite of Passage Magazine. To read the full magazine please click here.