HEAL art therapist Sue Cameron spoke to ABC Radio Brisbane’s Rebecca Levingston about HEAL’s expressive therapy in the lead up to our Songs of Hope and Healing Benefit Concert on 7 June 2022.
Listen to the broadcast here, or read the transcript below.
Rebecca Levingston: This is ABC Radio Brisbane with Rebecca Levingston. But let me take you to a different event that’s going to be happening in Brisbane tomorrow night and it’s all about healing. When you say the word HEAL, I wonder what you think of? Hope, forgiveness, love. In this case, it’s actually an acronym.
HEAL stands for Home of Expressive Arts and Learning. It is a program that gives creative arts therapy to young people from refugee backgrounds, and tomorrow night HEAL is hosting a concert to raise money for the program. It’s at the Queensland Performing Arts Center. Mahalia Barnes will be there.
But what’s it all about? Well, Sue Cameron is a HEAL art therapist. She’s based at St James College in Spring Hill. Good morning, Sue. Your job sounds wonderful – an art therapist – what is that?
Sue Cameron: It is an absolutely fantastic job. I get to work with the most amazing young people. We have a lot of fun while also healing.
I work mainly with newly arrived refugee students in secondary schools. I’m based at St James College in Spring Hill. Our program really offers students extra support while they’re settling into the Australian education system. Often students arrive from war zones, quite shocked, having to adjust everything in their lives. So having that little bit of extra support at school to just process what they’ve been through, to get some support to understand what they need to learn for the new school system is so important for their successful future.
Rebecca: And in some instances, Sue, if English is not their first language, is art a way of connecting and communicating that’s not so confronting or stressful?
Sue: Very much so, yes. For young people who have experienced very traumatic experiences, even if they have English language, it can be very, very difficult to express what they’re feeling about that, and often they don’t know what they’re feeling, so that’s a really important role for us as creative arts therapists. And art is just a natural form for that. It’s body-based, and we know that trauma is experienced through the body. So it gives them a chance to process what they’ve been through, but also to express a lot of joy and hope as they find new ways of experiencing things.
Rebecca: What does that mean – body based in terms of the trauma and the art therapy as well?
Sue: Well art is naturally body-based. We also do a lot of movement work, but certainly when people have experienced significant trauma and perhaps are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we know that memories are kind of captured in the body.
And it can be almost impossible for young people to verbally express that, but through the art they can reflect on it. They can identify what’s going on for themselves and begin to put some meaning around that, so it really helps them to settle.
We use a lot of mindfulness-based practices. We work with young people to establish a kind of self-regulation process for them. And then also to help them set goals for themselves so that they can really start to engage with the school system, whether that be through sports, or through other community activities. So, we work very closely with school staff as a team-based approach.
Rebecca: You’re listening to Sue Cameron, who actually, Sue you have such a lovely, soothing, speaking voice, even as you’re talking about it, so I can understand why you’d be the perfect art therapist to work with young people – in some instances, newly arrived refugees to Australia. And in fact, HEAL – the home of expressive arts and learning – is having a fundraising concert tomorrow night that you can go along too. It’s at QPAC. It’ll be a beautiful evening with fabulous talent. Mahalia Barnes is going to be performing as well as hearing from some of the people who have benefited from HEAL.
So what’s your background? How did you get into art therapy?
Sue: I’ve come from a background in visual arts and psychology training, but also many years work in the community sector, so I’ve worked with families and young people from many different backgrounds, cultural backgrounds. And I guess that I’ve always had an interest in trauma and the use of art to recover from trauma – through personal experience, but also through people who are close to me and watching them recover from trauma. So I’ve always known that art was a really powerful medium for that, and so it was a natural fit for me to go into art therapy.
Rebecca: Can you tell us about a young person you’ve worked with and, you know, what sort of activities you’ve done? How you saw them change or grow?
Sue: We offer a really diverse range of experiences and it really depends on the school that we’re working in. We really individualize our support according to the school system and what’s needed.
But we do a lot of individual and small group therapy which is evidence based and strength based. So a very common example would be a young person referred to us by a school teacher, because they’re not learning in class.
An example I had was a young man who came from Myanmar. He’d been in refugee camps. He’d become increasingly withdrawn since he’d arrived at the school. He wasn’t able to learn, so he came and started seeing me. When he first came, even though we use interpreters, he could not articulate anything about what was going on for himself. So we just started to work with the art and develop a relationship. The art is very much in the context of a very supportive relationship. And over time we were able to articulate that he’d lost family members, that another family member was currently ill, and this was just causing him a huge amount of concern. So there was a lot of trauma around the loss of parents.
We began to then define the feelings that he was having, but also the things that he would like to connect with at the school – so that involved sport, and some extra learning support. We provide a wraparound service, as well as referring on to external organisations outside of the school, so that would be a very typical kind of referral that we would get.
Rebecca: You can’t imagine the contrasting worlds in some instances, as you say, if you’re coming from a conflict zone, or perhaps long term in a refugee camp, and then to come to another country. I remember a conversation I had with a woman, a mum, a couple of years ago, who was talking about the idea, you know, there’s so much going on, and there’s a lot of pressure to be grateful for what assistance you are given. But she said she was in a house with a refrigerator, and where she had come from she had never had access to (a refrigerator), so even the understanding of purchasing food that you could keep at your home…And then at the same time, in a first world country like Australia, there’s actually so much waste, and so there’s this kind of kaleidoscope of emotions and contrasts, and you think of that through the eyes of a young person…
Sue: Yes, and our young people, they’re just dealing with everything. So navigating going to the shop, being able to ask for something that they want. Even their schools – if they have been in school in the country they’ve come from, the school system is often very different. So actually learning how the Australian school system works on top of everything else that they’ve experienced. We work closely with families, but also recognise that their parents are really busy with settling into the new country, so we can provide that extra support at the school. And the most important thing that young people have articulated to us is developing a sense of belonging and safety. So they’re our priority areas – for them to feel that they belong, that school is a safe place for them, a place where they can thrive. And we have a lot of fun, like, it’s not all serious! We have a lot of fun and that’s why I’m so excited about this concert tomorrow because it I think it expresses a lot of the joy that we experience in working with these young people. Because they are absolutely incredible people, and they’re going to be the most amazing citizens. So we’re really, really grateful to QPAC for supporting this and to work in partnership with QPASTT who is our coordinating group to run the concert tomorrow.
Rebecca: Well, if people can get along and support you, that’ll be a wonderful thing. So 7 o’clock tomorrow night. Tickets are available at QPAC now for the HEAL concert. Mahalia Barnes will there will be there along with a whole range of different cultural performers. And what a special organization you guys are, HEAL – home of expressive arts and learning. Thank you so much, it’s been a delight to meet you.
Sue: Oh, thank you for inviting me in.