HEAL art therapist Jane Griffin speaks to ABC Radio National

HEAL founder and art therapist Jane Griffin spoke to ABC Radio National’s Jennifer Leake about HEAL’s expressive therapy at Milpera State High School.

Click the image to listen to the broadcast, or read the transcript below.



JENNIFER LEAKE: When Jane Griffin was in the middle of studying Fine Arts, she had to complete an elective which involves going out to do work in the community.  She chose to do some environmental education with students at Milpera State High in Brisbane.  Jane knew a lot of the kids were newly arrived immigrants and thought it would be useful. But she soon realized the students needed something quite different.  Jane Griffin is now an art psychotherapist at Milpera State High School.  I spoke with her earlier in the week.


JANE GRIFFIN:  When I got there, I was using art to teach the kids about litter and keeping the environment clean.  And if they ever had any spare time at the end, then they would just do free drawing.  And most of the kids in the class were South Sudanese kids and they would often spend that time drawing scenes of horror –  of helicopters shooting at people, of dead bodies, of people bleeding, and I said to the teacher, “Wow, what do we do with this?” And she said, “It’s hard to know.” So I thought, I’m going to go and study art therapy and find out what we can do about this.


JL:  Wow, that’s quite confronting.  You know, to think if you had one kid that was drawing that, that would be, you know, full on, but to think that’s what most of them were drawing.  Have you ever experienced anything like that before?


JG:  No, I was really surprised and I was quite shocked by the content of the drawings, but it also amazed me how stories will come out in art.  They weren’t meant to be drawing their past or their history or what had happened to them.  They were just having free drawing time and that’s what they chose to draw.  So I went to study creative arts therapy at MIECAT, which is a very good course and later I followed it up with the Masters of Mental Health at UQ in Art Therapy –  and then I understood what was going on with those stories. To some extent.  The amazing thing about art therapy is it’s such an appealing thing for adolescents and for many people, because it’s not sitting down talking to someone about your problem.  It’s creative methods of looking at the way your life is and very successful with kids and adults.


JL:  Yeah, and I suppose you know, potentially dealing with some trauma and going through some issues is kind of a byproduct that sneaks up on the person rather than that being the first thing they’re trying to do, like you would with the counselor, perhaps.


JG:  Exactly. And in art therapy, we don’t mine for the trauma story. Often trauma will out. There’s no avoiding it, but we certainly don’t go into the therapy sessions saying to the children, “tell us what happened,” because it that’s not always the best thing for someone to do.


JL:  So what is art therapy?


JG:  A process which can use all sorts of creativity like art, making movement, drama, playing, sand play, anything creative really, which supports a child within a therapeutic relationship to improve their self-awareness, to offer them at a safe space to look at emotional regulation, at how they are in the world. If they want to – where they’ve been and where they’re going.  And it uses creativity as a tool, but creativity is of itself healing as well.


JL:  Can you give me an example of how a session might work?


JG: When we do this work, we need a confidential space and often a telephone because we’re working with kids at Milpera who may not have English yet and you might need to use a telephone interpreter.  We’re lucky that we have a dedicated standalone building at Milpera now, which we’ve had since 2005. And it’s really good to have that building at the school, because if you can work in the school, there’s no barriers like cost or transport or stigma as far as attending therapy.   And the way that it works is, we assess kids on arrival at the school. Milpera is a school that does continual enrollment because kids are arriving from overseas all the time, well particularly pre-COVID, and we assess them using creative methods, which we’ve devised, and it gives us a little idea about how steady they’re feeling in the world, whether they benefit from having someone seeing them each week or not, and if we do decide that they could do with the help then we’ll timetable them on for a 40 minute session each week, individually or into a group session once a week.


JL: And what are the signs that someone would really benefit from one of these sessions?


JG: Usually the biggest sign is that they’re not learning.  It really ranges from the child who’s sitting in class not engaging with the teacher or with classmates and not really engaging with the world.  It ranges from that to the further end of the spectrum where someone is angry, upset, causing conflict, unable to sit still in their seat and anything in between. I mean, these are kids who have been through really difficult times. They’ve suffered grief and loss and displacement. They’ve come to a place where they have never seen before. They often can’t speak the language. Their parents are also upset they’ve had to leave their home in a hurry, or they’ve lived in a refugee camps for 10 years or more. And life has been quite unkind to them, and now they’re here, and we expect them to sit in a classroom and learn. And although they do bring a lot of strengths and they’re amazingly resilient, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.


JL: Once you get a student in there and they start drawing, how does it evolve?


JG: We would usually give directives because it’s very threatening to just have to come into a room with a strange person you don’t know and draw.  A lot of people don’t feel comfortable with that.  And you can’t assume that these kids have had the experience of drawing.  Not all of them have had access to materials, whereas others may have had a lot of school and know all about art.  It’s very variable, depending on whether they’re coming from a village in Sri Lanka or a high school in Syria.

The directive might be something like, “let’s think about the future,” because thinking about the future is a luxury, believe it or not, which some kids haven’t had. So let’s do a drawing or a collage of you in 10 years’ time … So now you’re 15. Let’s think about where you might be when you’re 25 and who will be in your life, where you might be working or studying. What will you have? What you will drive? What kind of look you will be going for?  All of those sorts of things. And so then the child will spend some time just creating that picture and thinking about the future and then at the end of the session we will talk about what that picture meant and where those ideas came from.

The creativity may take unusual forms, for example, if we’re asking you to make a lifeline of all the journeys in your life, because often our children have been in four or five different places, then we might just ask them to do it with colored stones along a ribbon. So that’s creative art therapy method for kids who may not be very comfortable with reading and writing. Yet they would much prefer to put some colored stones and fake flowers along a ribbon to show the good and bad times in their journey.


JL: You’re listening to ABC radio.  My name is Jen Leake. I’m speaking with Jane Griffin. She’s an arts psychotherapist and she works at the Milpera State High School in Brisbane. I imagine when you first started getting a picture of what some of these kids have been through, it would have been pretty shocking.  How do you get your head around trying to empathize and understand what they’ve been through.


JG:  I think that when I first began, I did a lot of reading about the countries that the kids came from. Nowadays, of course we have a lot available to us.  You know the kids from the Ukraine – I know what they’ve been through because it’s on the news every night.  The kids from Syria, similarly. I don’t think that you’re a psychotherapist unless you’re an empathetic person anyway, but it certainly helps to know a bit about the countries they come from and to have some idea of what they might have been through. Because the kids themselves are the best teachers of that. And so we art therapists are very open to hearing their interpretation of their stories.  If that’s where they want to go in the session. An important thing to remember is we’re working with adolescents, and they’re very interested in the new place, and they’re interested in fashion and meeting the opposite gender.  So there are other things that they want to focus on sometimes too.


JL:  What kind of changes have you seen in kids that you’ve worked with?


JG: One of the main reasons that the service exists in school is so that we can help them improve their learning ability, and we find that in our work we are helping them recover from the trauma and dislocation of their journey.  We see them getting improved emotional regulation, learning how to self soothe, their confidence builds. They learn to use creativity as an outlet, and I think also an important thing is that we normalize help seeking. Because we say to them, “this is therapy and you can get this when you’re an adult too,” and you know, we explain to them that they’re very lucky having it at school.  And we explain about the confidentiality, and the way it works, and I think it will help them in the future if they need to seek help as well.


JL: You use that term self soothe, which is something I recognize from when I had little babies. That was something people would talk about getting your babies to self soothe.  What does that mean for teenagers?


JG: Well, usually it’s about teaching the methods of mindfulness like deep breathing or movement methods. We often use yoga with our kids.   For some of them, they’ve never had an experience of body stretches and yoga, and it’s very good for them, especially if they’re in a tense posture from the stress of their lives and the stress of trying to learn in their second or third language.

We often teach ways to do deep breathing in ways that they can actually do in class without anybody noticing, so that if they start to feel panicked or start to feel overcome, they can just quietly, you know, there’s one where they count on their fingers under the desk while breathing slowly in holding it, breathing slowly out, and that’s very helpful for them.


JL: The Milpera State High School got impacted by the most recent floods in Brisbane and I think the 2011 floods as well. That would have disrupted a lot of things for students. What was the impact of that?


JG: Well, both times we had to move our whole school out to a different site, which is interesting to say the least.  And both times I was astounded at the resilience of the kids. They just got on with it, and I suppose in the scheme of things, if you’ve had to leave Afghanistan in a big hurry because of guns at your back, then moving from a flooded site to a very comfortable other place isn’t that big a deal. I think we teachers and therapists probably found it harder than the kids did.  Really, they managed it very well and we weren’t out in the second flood as long as we were the first flood. Now we’re back. At Milpera, I can see the kids are very happy to be back. They look on it as a place of belonging and they’ve settled back in really well and quickly.


JL:  Oh, that’s great.  It can be difficult to really engage with what refugees have to deal with coming to Australia.  It can feel quite distant.  Why do you think it’s important for Australians who aren’t refugees to really try and understand more of the stories of these people.


JG:  I think it’s really important for people to think in a humanitarian way. Full stop, anyway. But I think it’s important for people, if they can to hear some refugee background people stories because they’re in some ways unbelievable, the things they’ve gone through and the things that have happened to them.  And yet here they are.  And here they are making good lives and doing the best that they can with every opportunity that they get.  I think it would be a kinder world if more people got to know people from refugee backgrounds.  But having said that, a lot of our past students, after they’ve been at Milpera, they go into their mainstream high school or to TAFE, and often they move away from that refugee label, which I think is a healthy thing. And when they meet people in the future, those people may never know that they had a refugee background, and I think that it’s a testament to how well they’re able to settle.  That they kind of can take on their new identity.  They hold onto parts of their original, of course, but they’re not all about having been that refugee.  I think it’s really helpful for people to learn about refugee lives because they’re human lives.  And as we’ve seen in Ukraine, it can happen to anyone.